Echoes of Reconstruction: Black History/Black Resistance

The feature illustration shows the Abraham Lincoln School for Freedmen in New Orleans published April 21, 1866 in Harper’s Weekly.

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.

9 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Black History/Black Resistance

  1. Reconstruction changed “white control of black bodies” by shifting that control from the Master who actually cared about the slaves, to a Republican Party who used them as political pawns, and deliberately created racial hatred in the South that would evolve into Jim Crow, and then abandoned them when no longer politically useful. It was Republican policy that created over 100 years of oppression for black people.

    Daniel Chamberlain, who was the last Carpetbag governor of South Carolina where over half the population was black, wrote:

    “Underneath all the avowed [Republican] motives . . . lay a deeper cause . . . the determination to secure party ascendency and control at the South and in the nation through the negro vote. If this is hard saying, let anyone now ask himself . . . if it is possibly credible that the [1867] reconstruction acts would have passed if the negro vote had been believed to be Democrat.”

    Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black Congressman wrote to President Grant in a blistering indictment of the Republican Party and its intent to create racial division, division that would ultimately lead to Jim Crow:

    “Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been . . enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves and perpetuate it… A great portion of them have learned that they were being used as mere tools… My people have been told by these schemers when men were placed upon the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people… The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this State, except, perhaps, in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office and its emoluments to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them… If the State administration had adhered to republican principles, advanced patriotic measures, appointed only honest and competent men to office, and sought to restore confidence between the races, blood-shed would have been unknown, peace would have prevailed, Federal interference been unthought of; harmony, friendship, and mutual confidence would have taken the place of the bayonet. In conclusion, let me say to you, and through you, to the great republican party of the North, that I deemed it my duty, in behalf of my people, that I present these facts in order that they and the white people (their former owners) should not suffer the misrepresentations which certain demagogues seemed desirous of encouraging.”

    Booker T. Washington corroborates this devious Republican scheme:

    “I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end.”

    The Republican Party caused the post-Reconstruction racial strife, and then when it no longer needed the black vote in the South, it turned all that egalitarian policy onto the Plains Indians! We know how that turned out.

    Articles like this ignore the truth and promote fantasy!

    1. Ron mourns the alleged “fact” that Reconstruction supposedly shifted the control of African Americans “from the Master who actually cared about the slaves, to a Republican Party who used them as political pawns,” an image of loving enslavers and ignorant .Blacks common to Lost Cause arguments for the last century and a half. He claims that supporters of Black civic equality “deliberately created racial hatred in the South that would evolve into Jim Crow… It was Republican policy that created over 100 years of oppression for black people.” He of course ignores the fact that the Black Codes, an even more harsh manifestation of Jim Crow, were passed in 1865 and 1866 by all-white legislatures elected by all-white electorates before so-called Radical Reconstruction even began. In fact, Radical Reconstruction arose in reaction to these efforts to prevent Blacks from living as free people in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

      The post-war experience of Reconstruction did not create “racial hatred” in the post-war South, the hatred was already there. Black soldiers returning from the war were assassinated by former Confederates. Black workers were treated as though they were still slaves and were whipped and tortured for labor transgressions. White-owned newspapers began to predict the coming extermination of the Black race. This was all just months after Lee’s surrender. This hatred was not created by Reconstruction, in fact real Reconstruction began in response to it.

      It is hardly surprising to me to see former-South Carolina governor Daniel Chamberlain and Booker T. Washington trotted out as witnesses for the prosecution. The quotes Ron uses often appear together in the comments sections of blogs in opposition to modern writing on Reconstruction. They function as a sort of all-purpose rejoinder to writers who, as I do in my article, describe the agency and activism of African Americans during Reconstruction.

      The Chamberlain quote is lifted directly from an article on the Abbeville Institute, a purveyor of Neo-Confederate propaganda. In fact, it has all of the same editing of the excerpt on Abbeville’s site-the same ellipses and the same bracketed date. Ron may have seen the quote in some other location, as it is often cut and pasted into comments section on blogs by digital warriors.

      But, of course, Ron does not tell tell the whole story. He may not even know it.

      I will forgive Ron if he is not familiar with Gov. Chamberlain’s drift, after being deposed as governor in 1877, into a disturbing White Supremacist stream. Chamberlain eventually became an academic, teaching law at Cornell, and was attracted to “scientific” race theory. He wrote a number of papers, addresses, and articles describing Blacks as incapable of participating in a democracy and as impossible to educate at any level higher than that required for a trade. For those interested in his sad ideological declension. [See: A CARPETBAGGER’S CONVERSION TO WHITE SUPREMACY by Wilton B. Fowler in The North Carolina Historical Review Vol. 43, No. 3 (July, 1966), pp. 286-304.] Ron likely is only as knowledgeable about Chamberlain as whatever source he cut-and-pasted from allows.

      I would suggest that before cutting and pasting the Chamberlain quote again, Ron read more of the deposed governor’s writing. He can find Chamberlain’s attitudes towards Blacks in his “Open Letter” entitled “Present phases of our so-called Negro problem.”

      Describing Blacks as the “inferior race,” Chamberlain said that it was urgent that Republicans stop inspiring in Blacks the hope “of sharing with the white race here a social or political equality.”

      To get a sense of Chamberlain’s deep racism, and also his assessment of the veracity of Booker T. Washington on the race “question” we can look at what he says in the Open Letter about Teddy Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House for lunch.

      Daniel Chamberlain moved towards the Democratic Party in the 1880s as it was consolidating Jim Crow throughout the South. He sided with Jim Crow Democrats in their condemnation of Roosevelt for integrating the White House, even if only for an hour, by inviting Booker T. Washington to visit.

      Chamberlain said that allowing a Black man into the White House as a social guest was a “wanton and most reckless ‘playing with fire'” that “conspicuously affronts the white people of our South.” Chamberlain wrote that “a sense of duty, propriety and official decorum should have restrained the President from giving the invitation.”

      Chamberlain also gives his insight into Booker T. Washington. He writes that “Mr. Washington seems to me quite guiltless of offense. He could not be expected to decline the President’s invitation, though I am glad to add that I believe Mr. Washington has, in his own relations and conduct, always recognized the feeling of our Southern white people and has scrupulously deferred to it.”

      Chamberlain says that in inviting a Black man to the White House the “President failed of his duty, acted contrary to good judgement or possibly acted in mere wantoness of spirit…”

      By inviting Washington to the White House, Chamberlain argued, TR caused a “grave and widespread injury to Washington’s cause and to Washington himself; for he has lost to an appreciable degree the favor and confidence of the white people of the South, where his labors lie, and where his hope depends.” In other words, Washington’s real constituency was the White South, not the oppressed African Americans Ron seems to think he spoke for. Using Washington’s statement as evidence against my article is as questionable as using Chamberlain’s.

      Chamberlain was not not hesitant to state where he fell on the race issue: “Must we sacrifice our sense of right and justice…to the prejudices of the white people of the South? I answer: Yes; if you are in an official position…”

      Chamberlain also took TR to task for appointing a Black man as the Collector of the Port of Charleston. Chamberlain denounced this because it led to “a great awakening of the negro race to old dreams and hopes of political advancement and supremacy; and chagrin, disgust and a keen sense of injury, on the part of the white people of Charleston” which resulted in “a distinct disturbance of good relations between the two races, and a putting far off of the time when racial hatred and ill-feeling shall only be known as history.” Putting a single Black man in a Federal post in Charleston was, according to Chamberlain, a harbinger of “negro supremacy.” Let that sink in.

      Of course, anyone wondering about Chamberlain’s racism had all their questions answered early in the letter when he wrote that he felt revulsion in the presence of Blacks and that he assumed white people generally felt the same revulsion.

      Great witness Ron.

      The open letter can be found here:

      1. I am quite familiar with the fact that Chamberlain’s racism reflects the racism that prevailed in the North with far more intense detriment to black people than was ever witnessed in the South. Lincoln, Seward, and many of the political abolitionists were in lockstep with Chamberlain. But your attempt to discredit his statement about Republican Reconstruction motives is typical of those committed more to a present political interpretation of history than to historical truth! You attack the messenger yet provide no evidence to discount his message.

        Anticipation of such a typical rebuttal is why I provided a few corroborating witnesses. Is your next response to include the typical “righteous cause” response that Booker T. Washington was “fearful” and therefore embellished his statements? And what of Hiram Revels? Was his statement a mere product of his bitterness for being removed from his position as president of a college? Your silence regarding Mr. Revels speaks volumes. Your historiographical method is typical of the modern History discipline dominated by those motivated more by Leftist philosophy than historical truth. You pick and choose your evidence to build a fabricated history. But then in today’s current academic history discipline, where those on the Left dominate by a ratio of 33:1, such historiography is quite acceptable.

        You attempt to disparage The Abbeville Institute as “neo-Confederate.” I know personally the men behind the Institute, and their level of scholarship far exceeds the “neo-Marxist” style analysis of modern day “historians” who attempt to dismiss any defense of the Confederate cause with a convenient fabricated pejorative “Lost Cause Myth.” I have found that the more time I spend in primary sources, the more I realize that the “Lost Cause” apologists were far more accurate than are the “righteous cause school” whose adherents are the strange bedfellows of neocons and neo-Marxists. The former seek to prop up a fabricated national identity based on American exceptionalism, while the latter seek to tear down any good attributed to Western identity by viewing all of history through the narrow lens of an oppressor vs oppressed narrative. They are strange bedfellows indeed, both viewing the WBTS as “all about slavery.”

        I highly recommend The Abbeville Institute to the readers of Emerging Civil War. Do not go there if you close-mindedly seek confirmation of the modern historical narrative. Do go there if you want to see historical evidence that is suppressed in order to build the modern narrative. It is evidence that will open your eyes to the fact that modern disparagement of evidence like “the Dunning School” is more a product of modern political agenda than it is historical evidence. The Abbeville Institute is not simply a study of history, but is rather philosophical in nature and seeks to provide much needed balance regarding what is good and noble in the Southern tradition. It removes the modern day blinders and heeds the warnings of esteemed Professors:

        The late Dr. Eugene Genovese, Professor of History, University of Rochester stated, “Rarely, these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of the white people of the South. The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany. . . . To speak positively about any part of this Southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity, an increasing campaign by academic elites to strip young white and arguably young black Southerners of their heritage.” .” Massey Lectures at Harvard University.

        The late Dr. Ludwell Johnson, Professor of History Emeritus, College of William and Mary stated, “Various theoretical “isms” arriving from Europe in the 1960’s still endanger the very existence of what has so long been thought of as history… Of all fields of scholarship, history is perhaps most attractive and vulnerable to Political Correctness. It decrees that some things should be accepted without question – otherwise the elaborate machinery of academic control and social hostility will exact their full measure of retribution on the dissenter… Readers with special interest in the period of the Civil War need to be particularly alert because the South and Southerners offer many tempting Targets to the holier-than-thou.”

        It all boils down to whether you seek the truth, or reinforcement of a politically motivated narrative.

      2. Oh, and I meant to mention that it wasn’t “race” that led some black Union soldiers to be mistreated after the war. Your obsession with race blinds you to the fact that men of all races experienced severe retribution from those on both sides of the conflict who disagreed with the color of uniform the soldier wore. Here in my East Tennessee the cemeteries are dotted with the graves of men whose fate resulted from their choice of side. I would suggest you try viewing the war through a broader lens than just oppressor/oppressed.

  2. Its hard to see how Republicans would have staged successive massacres, lynchings and shooting of white and African-Americans during Reconstruction as a tool of holding the two groups of men to the Republican electoral purpose. To suggest such is a form of gaslighting, telling the victim of violence that they are deranged and the transgressor. Rational people are going to notice the gaslighting quickly and decline to consider it as serious dialogue.
    But the same thing happened during Reconstruction, so its not creative or original.

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