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What About the Freedman?

            For those of us who grew up in the welfare state, it is difficult to imagine that the government of the mid-1860s freed about four million slaves making almost no provision for what would become of them.  Because they were slaves, these new freedmen had been denied the opportunity to learn to read and write. (Slave owners feared that written communication among slaves would facilitate the planning of slave rebellions.) Because they had been slaves, the freedmen owned no property, not even clothing, cooking utensils, or blankets. Because most slaves were "field slaves," they had few marketable job skills; the small percentage who had skills--those who had been blacksmiths or carpenters or other skilled workers on the plantations--soon found themselves locked out of the skilled labor market by "Jim Crow" laws that were passed in the South with the intention of denying former slaves the opportunity to use their skills to compete with whites for relatively high paying jobs.

            Congress was willing to experiment with some land redistribution by allocating to slaves some of the land abandoned by or confiscated from rebels. But lands confiscated as a penalty for participation in the rebellion could be withheld from the owner only in his lifetime; it would have to be returned to his heirs. In any case, President Andrew Johnson brought a swift end to land redistribution ideas involving confiscated land by including in his reconstruction plans a program that restored property rights to those who received presidential pardons. The Freedmen's Bureau and private charities undertook the task of trying to do something to assist the newly freed slaves. The Freedmen's Bureau had a mandate that included serving refugees (i.e., displaced whites) and dealing with abandoned lands.  It did settle a number of freedmen on abandoned lands. But the Freedmen's Bureau and private charities all lacked resources to do the massive job that needed to be done to make adequate social provision for the former slaves. Congress had initially established the Freedmen's Bureau only for a limited time: one year. When Congress realized that the task that needed to be done could not be completed in so short a time, it passed an act to extend the life of the Freedmen's Bureau. President Johnson, who was fairly indifferent to the problems of former slaves, vetoed the bill.  Congress passed it over Johnson's veto and kept extending the life of the Bureau until 1872.

            During the time of its existence, and in spite of some corrupt and overly zealous partisan officials in its ranks, the Freedmen's Bureau distributed over a million rations of food, created some schools to provide basic education for Blacks, aided early Black colleges such as Fisk University and Howard University, and operated nearly 50 hospitals that treated nearly 450,000 indigent Black and white patients. If that sounds like a lot, do the math. There were about four million freed slaves and many more indigent whites.  A million food rations would have provided a single day's food for no more than 15 percent of those inadequately fed over a period of seven years. Treating 450,000 cases over seven years would provide a single hospital treatment over seven years for about seven percent of those entrusted to the Freedmen's Bureau's care. That could hardly be considered adequate provision for its constituents.  Nonetheless, it was for its time a revolutionary and fairly successful attempt at making publicly-funded social provision for the poor.

            The Freedman's Bureau also played two unique roles in establishing a new relationship between Blacks and whites in the South. One was creating special courts and boards of arbitration to resolve disputes between Blacks and whites and to intervene when the regular court system failed to provide justice for Blacks.  The other, which probably touched far more people, was developing labor contracts that were fair to illiterate Black and white workers who could not read what they were signing.  The labor system of the South had been totally disrupted by bringing slavery and indentured servitude to an end.  A new system had to be created, and the Freedmen's Bureau was instrumental in creating it.

            As older Radicals like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens died or retired, they were replaced my men like James G. Blaine and Roscoe Conkling who were excellent political strategists but lacked the ideological fervor and commitment to the interests of the former slaves that had characterized their predecessors. As that happened the Freedmen's Bureau took on a hidden (and improper) agenda--organizing Black support for the Republican party. For this latter agenda, both Democrats and Southerners came to despise and oppose the Freedmen's Bureau.

            Radical Reconstruction is sometimes (and improperly) referred to as "Black Reconstruction." The stereotypical image is one of illiterate Blacks "controlled" by carpetbaggers and "scalawags" dominating Southern legislatures and spending wildly on all sorts of unnecessary projects. In fact, there were relatively few Blacks in the legislatures created during Radical Reconstruction; most had been educated before the Civil War. There were no Black governors, only two Black United States senators and a handful of congressmen. Only one southern legislature was controlled by Blacks; and some had fewer than 20 percent Black members. Those Blacks who did hold office appear to have been about equal in competence to the whites. The percentage of  Blacks who came to hold government positions and who were also corrupt was certainly no higher than the percentage of white public officials who were corrupt.  (This was, after all, the era of Tammany Hall and the scandals of the Grant Administration.)  It is true that these Radical governments were expensive, but large state expenditures were necessary to rebuild roads, bridges, and cities after the war and to establish, for the first time in most Southern states, a system of public education.  (Free public education existed in New England because its Puritan founders considered education essential for the practice of their type of Protestantism; it existed in the states created from the Northwest Territory because the Northwest Ordinance had set aside land and created a mechanism for funding free public education.  But widespread public education did not exist in many parts of the pre-Civil War United States--especially in the South.)

            Radical regimes in Southern states began to fall apart almost as soon as they were created. First of all, although a relatively small number of  Southern whites in the mountainous regions and some planters in the rich bottom lands were willing to cooperate with the Blacks and their Northern born "carpetbagger" allies in these new governments, such "scalawags" were never numerous enough to exert much influence among Southern whites. The mass of Southern whites remained fiercely opposed to Black political, civil, and social equality. Occasionally their hostility was expressed through such terrorist organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to punish so-called "uppity Negroes" and to drive their white political handlers from the South. Far more often, it was manifested through support of the Democratic Party, which gradually regained its strength in the South and waited for the time when the North would tire of supporting the Radical regimes and withdraw federal troops from the South.

            Efforts to shore up the Radical regimes grew increasingly unsuccessful. The adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), prohibiting discriminatory denial of voting rights on account of race , had little effect in the South, where terror inflicted by such groups as the Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia and economic pressure from planters kept Blacks away from the polls. The three Force Acts passed by the Republican controlled Congress (1870-71), giving the president the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and imposing heavy penalties upon terrorist organizations, in the long run were no more successful. When Radical governments succeeded in dispersing chapters of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist/terrorist organizations, they also drove the members, and often their tactics, deeper than ever into the Democratic party.

            Regardless of actual racial composition, the conditions that compelled spending (and, therefore, taxing), or the degree of success of their programs, the myth of "Black" Reconstruction created fodder for political rancor well into the 20th century. As Southern whites became more and more aligned with the Democratic party and Radical Republicans tried to devise new ways of building a larger base of support for the Republican party, the true interests of former slaves began to get lost in the shuffle.

            The Republican regimes in the Southern states, which had made some attempts to assist in the effort to weave Blacks into a new economic and political structure, began to fall as early as 1870; by 1877, before Reconstruction officially ended, they had all collapsed. For the next thirteen years, the South was under the leadership of white Democrats whom their critics called "Bourbons" because, like the French royal family called the Bourbon kings, they had supposedly "learned nothing and forgotten nothing" from the revolution they had attempted. For the South as a whole, that characterization of neither learning anything nor forgetting anything is neither accurate nor fair. In most Southern states the new political leaders came not only from the planter class but also from a rising Southern business community interested in railroads, cotton textiles, and urban land speculation. Even on racial questions the new Southern political leaders were not so reactionary as the label "Bourbon" might suggest. Although whites were in the majority in all but two of the Southern states, the conservative "Bourbon" regimes did not attempt to disfranchise the Negroes. At least in part, their restraint was caused by fear of further federal intervention.  But the new group of conservative leaders also believed at the time that they could control the Black voters, whether through manipulation, intimidation, or outright fraud.  The votes of these former slaves were sometimes of great value to "Bourbon" regimes, which favored the businessmen and commercial crop planters of the South over the small white farmers.

            The "Bourbon" governments, also sometimes called the "Redeemer" governments, promoted business interests while they sharply reduced or even eliminated the programs of the state governments that benefited poor people in general, not merely Blacks. The newly created public school system was starved for money. In 1890, the per capita expenditure in the South for public education was only 97 cents, compared with $2.24 in the country as a whole. The "Bourbon Redeemers" also neglected the care of state prisoners, the insane, and the blind was also rejected measures to safeguard the public health. Coupled with their extensive corruption and embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, the reduction in support for programs that benefited the poorer whites, who came to be called Populists because their programs were directed toward benefiting the mass of  "the people," sparked attempts to end the rule of the "Bourbon" group.

            Black voting in the South was an early casualty of the conflict between Redeemers and Populists. Although a few Populist leaders, such as Tom Watson in Georgia, saw that poor whites and poor Blacks in the South had a common interest in the struggle against the planters and the businessmen, most small white farmers exhibited vindictive hatred toward the Blacks. Watson himself was unwilling to support measures to benefit Blacks.  This hatred was partly due to the fact that new Black voters had so often been instrumental in upholding conservative regimes and partly because in the pre-Civil War South, Blacks were the only group lower than the poor whites in social status. Equal rights for Blacks had thus meant a perceived loss of status for poor whites. Beginning in 1890, when Mississippi held a new constitutional convention, and continuing through 1908, when Georgia amended its constitution, every state of the former Confederacy moved to disfranchise Blacks. Because the U.S. Constitution forbade outright racial discrimination, the Southern states excluded Negroes by requiring "literacy tests." These laws required that potential voters be able to read or to interpret any section of the Constitution--a requirement routinely waived for poor whites but rigorously insisted upon when some audacious Black wanted to vote. Louisiana added the "grandfather clause" to its constitution, exempting from this literacy test all of those who had been entitled to vote on January 1, 1867, i.e., before Congress imposed Negro suffrage upon the South--together with their descendants. Other states imposed stringent property qualifications for voting or enacted complex poll taxes.

            Socially as well as politically, race relations in the South deteriorated as small farmers' movements rose to challenge the political power of the planter/business conservative regimes. By 1890, with the triumph of Southern populism, the Black's place was clearly defined by law as one which relegated him to a subordinate and entirely segregated position. Not only were legal sanctions reminiscent of the "Black Codes" adopted just after the Civil War being imposed upon the Blacks, but informal, extralegal, and often brutal steps were also being taken to keep them in their "place." Between 1889 and 1899, there were an average of 187.5 lynchings per year in the South.

            Faced with entrenched and growing hostility from Southern whites, many Blacks during the 1880s and 1890s felt that their only sensible course was to avoid open conflict and to work out some pattern of accommodation with whites. The most influential Black spokesman for this policy was Booker T.  Washington, the head of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, who urged his fellow Blacks to forget about politics and college education in the classical languages and to learn how to be better farmers and artisans. With thrift, industry, and abstention from politics, he thought that Negroes could gradually win the respect of the white community. In 1895, in a speech at the opening of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Washington most fully elaborated his position, which became known as the Atlanta Compromise. Renouncing hopes of federal intervention in behalf of the Blacks, Washington argued that reform in the South would have to come from within. He argued that change could best be brought about if both Blacks and whites recognized that "the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly." In the social life, Washington argued, the races in the South could be as separate as the fingers; but in economic progress they could be as united as the hand.

            Enthusiastically received by Southern whites, Booker T. Washington's program also found many adherents among Southern Blacks, who saw in his doctrine a way to avoid head-on, disastrous confrontations with overwhelming white force. The program Washington proposed was, however, condemned by many Blacks as one in which Blacks effectively gave away what was most essential to their long-term best interests: the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment and political participation. It is not surprising that Washington proposed an accommodation that initially disadvantaged his own group and put upon them the burden of earning what they already had a legal right (via the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) to have. We see similar reactions in the willingness of abuse victims to blame themselves for their own abuse and to attempt to find ways to please the abuser; and we also saw it in the response of some Jewish groups to the Nazis' ascendance to political power. Whether or not Washington's plan would have produced generations of orderly, industrious, frugal Blacks slowly working themselves into middle-class status cannot be known because a profound economic depression occurred in the South during most of the post-Reconstruction period. During this depression, neither poor whites nor poor Blacks had much opportunity to rise in a region that was desperately impoverished. Given the fact that any status gain for Blacks was perceived by poor whites to come at the expense of poor whites, I frankly think it is doubtful that Washington's plan would have had the desired outcome even in better economic circumstances.

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