Historical Background Notes

After the Civil War,
the South went through a period called Reconstruction in which the political
systems, economies, and areas damaged by the war were rebuilt.  Before the war,
landowners had  a ready source of labor for their crops with slaves.  Southern
landowners faced a dilemma in the form of how to keep their plantations
productive after the war ended.  In order to receive a pardon from the President
of the United States, Andrew Jackson, they had to agree that they would not
utilize slave labor for their crops any longer.  Over the next decade, a system
where former slaves provided the labor required for a successful plantation

Freed former slaves did not see an end to their suffering when
they were granted emancipation, or even when the war finally ended.  With the
Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, slaves were given their
freedom, made citizens of the United States, and, for men, given the right to
vote.  The Reconstruction plans pursued by different groups in power allowed for
constitutional and legal rights of the former slaves, but did nothing to provide
a way for those people to make a living.

The freedmen no longer had to  work on the plantations, but they were not given an alternative way to earn a  living (Tindall and Shi 1996, 755).  In 1865, General Sherman tried to give  emancipated slaves land in  the coastal areas and islands of Georgia and  South Carolina by promising “forty acres and a mule”
(Divine et al. 2002,  517).  “As one black man in Mississippi put it: ‘Gib us our own land and we take
care ourselves; but widout land, de ole massas can hire us  or starve us, as dey
  please’”(Tindall and Shi 1996, 756).  Unfortunately, President Johnson and
Congress did not support any plan that effectively confiscated and redistributed
land of former confederates (Divine et al. 2002,  517)

Congress created
the Freedmen’s Bureau in March of 1865 in order to help alleviate the problems
facing the former slaves (Kennedy et al. 2002, 480).  Local sections provided
provisions, clothing, and fuel to the  freedmen and their families.  The
Bureau took over abandoned and confiscated land to rent out in forty-acre plots
to freemen who might be able to buy it within three years.  Freedmen and women
used the Bureau to  negotiate labor contracts with planters.  Providing
medical care and setting up schools were other services offered by local
bureaus.  Finally, the Bureau had its own court to deal with labor disputes and
land titles, as well as supervise trials that involved former slaves in other
courts.  Congress did not give the Freedmen’s Bureau much power and it expired
in 1872 (Kennedy et al. 2002, 480).

Four clear options emerged for the  freedmen and women after the war: obtain land, move, work for former masters, or sharecrop.  Some freedmen were able to obtain their own personal
land to work to support themselves and their families. Others opted to move to
the cities and the North to find work that was not agrarian based.  Directly
after the war, plantation owners established a contract labor system that
employed their former slaves (Divine et al. 2002, 518).  The freedmen and women
would commit to work on the plantation for a year in return for fixed wages,
which were often paid with part of the harvest.   Sharecropping eventually  extinguished the contract system (Divine et al. 2002,  518).  Sharecroppers  worked a piece of land and received a fixed share of the crop, which was usually
one-half.  Landowners did not have to invest much at the beginning of the season
and the tenant shared the risk of the crop.  At first,
freedmen saw
sharecropping as a step up from wage labor because they felt it was on the way
to landowning.  Actually, the system turned into another form of servitude
because the tenants had to live on
credit from the landowner until the
cotton sold.  Often sharecroppers never quite caught up to what they owed
because the landowners would charge high prices and interest, which they took
out of the crop arning at the end of the season leaving little or no profit and
usually a debt they could try to work off the next season.

OK, now
describe (lists are OK) how life both changed and stayed the same for newly
freed African
Americans during this crucial period.  Post in the Comment

Leave a Reply.