ECW welcomes back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
Reconstruction began while the Civil War was still raging. As Black refugees from slavery reached Union lines, they forced the United States government to reconstruct the relations of slave and master that had defined Black/White relations since the Colonial Era. For Black History Month we will look at how Black resistance challenged white control of Black bodies. The links take you to longer articles I have written on the subject that include primary source documentation.
Monroe Bogan was an Arkansas slaveowner who, in December of 1863, claimed to own West Bogan. The problem with this claim was that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed West on January 1, 1863. Monroe Brogan “owned” 37 human beings, or at least he had under the laws of Arkansas up until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. After that date he assumed the legal standing of a kidnapper.
On December 15, 1863, Monroe chastised West for refusing an order to work. Monroe set to whip West, and West killed him with an ax. West escaped to Helena, Arkansas, a free city in a land of slavery, and obtained employment. Two weeks later he was arrested by Union forces and accused of murdering Monroe Brogan. In February, 1864 West was tried by an all-white court martial, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Months later, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele blocked the execution and ordered a review of the case. Union Army Chaplain John Herrick advocated for West, arguing that evidence of Monroe Bogan’s cruelty toward his slaves had not been allowed to be introduced at trial and that West did not have the intention of killing Monroe, merely of defending himself from a whipping.
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt became involved in the case and was convinced that West’s act was not murder. He believed that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the status of both Monroe and West. Monroe was no longer a slave owner and West had ceased to be a slave. Their status was now that of employer and employee, and an employer could neither compel his worker to work, nor could he whip him to ensure compliance with orders. West had been defending himself from an unlawful assault and his act was not murder. Lincoln signed the death sentence order as “Disapproved.”
Black resistance to white control did not only take the form of physical force, mental training was just as important. The same year that Lincoln disapproved the Arkansas execution, a school for Black children was founded in New Orleans. In many parts of the South, slaves were not only excluded from schools, but even teaching them basic literacy was barred. In 1865, the African American community in the Crescent City celebrated the first anniversary of their own school. Liberated by Union General Ben Butler three years earlier, Blacks there had a head start on educating their children. Like many schools set up during the military occupation, it owed its existence to a partnership including the Black community, Northern missionaries, and the army. The anniversary celebration highlighted the achievements of the 1,500 young scholars educated there.
Soon after the Confederate collapse in the Spring of 1865, post-war governments in the South, elected exclusively by whites, began enacting Black Codes to legislate the control of Black labor by white “masters.” In states throughout the South, former Confederates controlled governments that actively discriminated against Blacks, including those who had fought for the victorious Union army. Under slavery, Blacks would have been forced to accept this state of affairs, but in 1865 the Black Convention Movement got underway in the former Confederacy. While Blacks could not vote, they could meet in statewide conventions and voice their opposition to their oppression. While these conventions could not stop the passage of the Black Codes, the attention they drew to these laws in the North led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.
In the years after the war, many former Confederates joined groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the White League to keep control of local and state politics in the hands of old elites by blocking African Americans from voting. The Klan did not simply run roughshod over the countryside in 1868, however. Army detachments, including black U.S. soldiers, were sent to combat the Klan. Black military service had been a key to defeating the Confederates, and post-war it was a defense against a new kind of insurgency.
Prior to the Civil War, black workers were excluded from nearly every “white” labor union in the United States. During Reconstruction, many African Americans began organizing agricultural workers and Black service workers and pressing for inclusion in the broader labor movement. The leaders of the newly formed National Labor Union (NLU), a confederation of many local labor unions, opened its doors to women and African Americans. At its Sept. 4, 1869 convention black delegates were seated at a national labor union convention for the first time. William Sylvis, who headed the NLU, had been an effective organizer of iron molders, many of whom were Irish immigrants. He also worked to bring immigrant women into the NLU. Sylvis saw newly freed slaves as good candidates for unionization during this period of ascendant Black power.
While the first half-decade of Reconstruction saw courageous Black resistance to white domination, it also revealed the willingness of the opponents of Black freedom to organize and use campaigns of violence to impede the march towards equality. The Klan and its allies took their toll in blood, but they did not operate with impunity during this period. Blacks helped bring some to justice. In other instances they formed their own groups to counter the Klan’s terror. In Chapel Hill, Tn., for example, when Klansmen tried to whip a Black man in June of 1868, they were fired on and driven off. Returning later, they encountered more than a dozen armed Black men and several of the whites were killed or wounded.
Over time the terrorism would take its toll. As Northern whites lost interest in protecting African Americans, former Confederates increasingly took back power and created systems that effectively denied Blacks basic civil rights for the next nine decades. But, for a brief moment, people who had been enslaved were able to hope that during their lifetimes civil equality might be achieved.