Although the reasoning behind southern secession and the Civil War seems to be a convoluted mess of issues regarding states’ rights, taxation, and good ole’ fashioned territorial tension, what is clear and understandable is the significance that a Union victory brought to those enslaved. Despite popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves their sought after freedom (Worry not! We have all thought so at one time or another). Instead, concrete freedom and undeniable American citizenship came to all African Americans with the adoption of the consecutive Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments (passed in 1865 and 1868, respectively). But, what came next?
Although those two amendments both abolished slavery and required all rights and privileges belonging to United States citizens to no longer be withheld from African Americans, these pieces of legislation were mute on just how States were to incorporate thousands of new citizens into every day life. So, what had life been like for African Americans during the Reconstruction Era of U.S. history?
As we have learned in our high school history classes (and still witness, even today), being black and living in America can be characterized as a constant uphill struggle for freedom, rights, and respect. Yes, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments may have promised to fulfill the American creed – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – for African Americans, the fact remains that racism was (and is) embedded in our culture. Understanding, then, that the assimilation of these new citizens was going to be hard, the U.S. government had the foresight to create the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (shortened to just Freedman’s Bureau) in March of 1865. The purpose behind the Freedman’s Bureau, originally intended to operate for just one year, was to ensure that African Americans were given proper food and medical attention, as well as education and protection in the workplace. The efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau became even more essential when, later that same year, Mississippi and other southern states enacted legislation known as the Black Codes.
Although the Black Codes are considered the precursor to the intense and violent Jim Crow Era of the South, the laws enacted by these codes packed a definite wallop. Born from a necessity to reinforce white supremacy, the Black Codes served as the behavioral outline for what African Americans could and could not do within the boarders of their state. For the most part, the codes were concerned with the issue of integrating African Americans into the existing labor market. Thousands of men and women joined the free labor market pool and white southerners, wishing to kill two birds with one stone, detailed the rights that African Americans had in regards to work and contracts in the Black Codes.
So, with all focus on labor, we are left with a question: what kinds of jobs did African Americans have in Reconstruction America?
Church and Publication
Richard Allen, a former slave once owned by famed Philadelphian lawyer Benjamin Chew, founded the first independent black denomination in the United States just fourteen short years after he bought his freedom in 1780. The church, American Methodist Episcopal of Philadelphia, became an invaluable resource for African Americans to be involved with both politics and the black community. During the Civil War, numerous African Americans participated in the proliferation of the abolition cause through their positions in the AME. Through the AME, African Americans served in traditional and non-traditional church roles that united the black community. The non-traditional positions had African Americans creating and publishing the AME’s official newsletter, The Christian Recorder. According to Eric Gardner, The Christian Recorder became a widely read and subscribed to newspaper that reached both African American civilians and soldiers fighting in the war.
After the war, the nature of The Christian Recorder somewhat shifted. While still printing interesting articles and notices of community events, the weekly newsletter began to publish with more frequency ‘Information Wanted’ advertisements. Hundreds of people, in desperate hopes of reuniting with a lost love one (who had been sold, fought in the war, etc.), wrote to The Christian Recorder with information usually detailing the lost person’s name, appearance, and even last known location. Along with being responsible for printing those wanted advertisements in the newsletter, those working for the AME often served as liaisons, or contacts, between those searching for loved ones and the people who might have information and possible leads about the missing.
Although the work completed by those of traditional church positions was rather different than those with more non-traditional roles in the AME, both occupations required African Americans to do meaningful and, at times, difficult work.
Once the successful Atlanta to Savannah leg of his legendary March to Sea had come to an end, Gen. William Sherman met with several black leaders of Savannah to discuss the idea of appropriating the confiscated southern territory to African Americans who fought for Union or had previously worked the land while enslaved. From Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, issued on 16 January 1865, comes the well-known order for African Americans to receive “forty acres and a mule” as reparation for the injustices done to them by slavery. Although Sherman’s order is admirable, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination put the proverbial nail in the coffin of the former slaves owning the confiscated land. President Andrew Johnson, a Southern sympathizer, returned the land to the properties’ original owners.
Although the reinstated plantation owners were given back their land, the workforce needed to care for the property was no more. While anxious to reclaim their lost fortune, plantation owners realized that they could capitalize on the poor African Americans who, because of the Black Codes, needed work but could not afford the land and tools necessary to create a successful farm or business. As a deceptive cure for all ills, plantation owners offered these freed blacks a portion of their land in return for percentage of the crops produced. This process of renting land in exchange for goods became known as sharecropping.
Sharecropping and Its Prevalence
Although the premise of sharecropping sounds fair, albeit opportunistic, the truth behind the exchange was for less reasonable than we would like to think. As we have discussed, sections of the Black Codes detail African American employment. The portion, “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes,” requires that all “freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes” to live in previously designated areas (so, African Americans could live only in towns that the government deemed proper) unless holding a license to live and work someplace else. For most African Americans, purchasing property in those designated towns was unrealistic. Truthfully, what former slave had money to spend on land or a home?
Armed with this knowledge, plantation owners appealed to these freedmen and offered them the gold plated opportunity of sharecropping: for a small portion of the profit (one-third of the crop harvest), one could rent the land needed to both live on and farm. Again, sharecropping does not sound all that bad. But, tagged on to the fine print of the deal were stipulations and charges. As previously mentioned, most freedmen were poor and, thus, could not afford the seeds and tools required to cultivate a successful farm. Once more, plantation owners had the solution: for an additional third of the crop harvest, one could rent the tools and seeds (picked by the plantation owner) needed.
So, after months of hard labor, what would those who entered the contract with the plantation owners receive as profit? One third of their crop harvest that must be disbursed in two ways: consumed by the family or sold for monetary gain. Suddenly, sharecropping does not seem like such a good idea. Yet, during Reconstruction, nearly 90% of all African Americans were sharecroppers.
The story of freedman Luther Mills exemplifies the conundrum faced by many African Americans after the Civil War. Mills, a husband and father of three, searched for odd jobs and other ways to provide for his family. Unable to read or write, Mills understood that his options were limited and, when presented with the opportunity to obtain the necessities his family needed, agreed to become a sharecropper. Signing a contract with a plantation owner, becoming a sharecropper, was not a perfect solution to the troubles that faced newly freed African Americans, but the contract was certainly enough to provide for the basic needs of daily life. Unfortunately, once the deal was made and contract signed, the sharecropper was stuck working for his employer for at least a year. According to the Black Codes, a deal was a deal and could not be terminated by the employee. If a contract had been agreed upon to last a year, then the employee was required to work for that time period. The employee, or sharecropper in this instance, could not quit and, if caught trying to leave the employment, would be returned and punished. Sounds an awful lot like the various fugitive slave legislations of the past, right?
As we can see, conditions for African Americans in the South had not improved and, one could argue, began to resemble a quasi-slavery institution. Fortunately, freed black men and women were now able to travel to find better employment opportunities.
Since the North had fought for the freedom of those enslaved, southern African Americans believed that northern towns and workplaces would be the answer to their problems. Black women, in particular, were eager to trek North for the possibility of working outside the domestic sphere that they had been limited to for so long. These women were especially hopeful in finding better wage work given the economic climate of the North during Reconstruction.
During the later half of the Civil War and immediately following the fighting, the North and West experienced an industrial boom that has been unparalleled in American history since. This explosion of industry and business was primarily due to the proliferation of electricity, as well as railroad expansion (the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869). As a result of this remarkable boom in production, more people were needed to perform manual labor tasks such as attending to the new assembly lines or hammering in the metal steaks on railroad ties. Because of the high demand of labor, business looked to capitalize on an underutilized resource to save money; women, of course, represented that rarely tapped reserve. Once women began to be hired in bulk for these factory jobs, a hierarchy of female workers was created. Atop the labor pyramid were the white, Anglo-Saxon females, followed then by the Irish women, and ending with black females who, instead of factory work, found themselves designated to performing jobs only in domestic services. According to Sharon Harley in The Afro-American Women: Struggles and Images, as “all blacks were despised and hated by whites, there can be little doubt that black females were excluded from the northern factory system.” So, once again, African American women found themselves working as maids, dishwashers and, for a lucky few, unskilled factory workers.
Although I have created a rather bleak image of life for African Americans in the South during Reconstruction, not all suffered under the sharecropper regime. Scholars of African American history have identified over one thousand black men who held political office in both state and federal government. Surprising? Given what we learned about the Black Codes, most definitely. The first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress was a man named Hiram Rhodes Revels.
Interestingly, Revels began his career as a minister in the AME church. Serving in a traditional church role, Revels spoke often to those in his congregation and often put his formal education to more use by tutoring youngsters. Born a free man in North Carolina, Rhodes was tutored himself at an early age and continued with his education at the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, as well as Knox College in Illinois. After leaving AME to join the Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels was stationed permanently in Natchez, Mississippi in 1866. In just three short years, Revels was elected to present his county in the Mississippi State Senate. There, Revels flourished and was soon voted to replace Albert Brown in the U.S. Senate in 1870. Revels became not only the first African American to serve in the Senate, but in Congress itself.
Another first to serve was Oscar James Dunn of Louisiana. Unlike Revels, Dunn was born into slavery and, after working as a skilled laborer for years, was emancipated in 1819. Dunn, while a skilled laborer, had also been tutored in music and was a talented violinist. In 1868, Dunn became the first black man to serve in state government as Louisiana’s lieutenant governor. Once Reconstruction ended, however, men like Revels and Dunn were no longer able to serve in government on a local, state or federal level. Although their terms in political office did not last long, these men created a legacy and should be remembered as true pioneers of the time.
After the Civil War, African Americans help a wide variety of jobs ranging from the sharecroppers in agriculture, women as maids and dishwashers, and even so far as political office. The accomplishments of these men and women were great, but still not equal or fair treatment that African Americans deserved under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment. Knowing about the kind of job opportunities (or lack thereof) that existed for African Americans during Reconstruction puts Civil Rights history into a new perspective, making the movement of the 1960s inevitable and even still continuing.
Harley, Sharon and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images. New York: Kennikat Press, 1978.
Sharecropping Map and photograph of Oscar James Dunn are provided courtesy of Google Images.