Reconstruction refers to the time period after the Civil War when the U.S. was dealing with reabsorbing the rebellious southern states and the impact of ending slavery. The period lasted from 1865 to 1877, and the points below are some of the most important things to understand:
State of the government:
- The people who were in power in the South before the Civil War (“white southern elites”) stayed in power after the war. And the way they treated African Americans only got worse.
- Congress was largely occupied by the Radical Republicans who wanted the South to be punished for the Civil War. They also wanted to help the freedmen by giving them land, education, etc.
- Presidents Lincoln and Johnson wanted to be more lenient toward the South (which led to conflict with Congress).
Life in the South:
- Right after the Civil War, southern states made a series of laws known as Black Codes that prevented the former slaves (freedmen) from being able to do anything other than work on plantations. After a few years, the 14th amendment was ratified, making these blatantly racist laws unconstitutional.
- The systems of sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slavery on plantations, but they weren’t much better than slavery. They left African Americans trapped in debt to plantation owners with no hope of ever making enough money to leave and make a better life for themselves.
- Racist hate groups like the KKK were terrorizing the freedmen (and whites who tried to help blacks) in the South. They prevented them from having any type of economic success, kept them from voting, and committed violent acts including lynching.
What happened next:
- By the time President Grant (yes, Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero) was elected, everyone was fed up with the South’s terrible treatment of the freedmen, so Grant sent military troops to occupy the South and run their governments. He also helped create laws that made it possible to stop groups like the KKK. Things in the South got better for African Americans, for a little while.
- The 15th amendment was ratified to prevent racial discrimination in voting. In response, Southern states created racially-based barriers to voting like literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes.
- Carpetbaggers and scalawags were white people who took advantage of the turmoil in the South to make money for themselves.
- A financial panic (you know, when the economy gets bad and people start losing their jobs and money) in the U.S. in the 1870s as well as scandals in Grant’s presidency caused people to be distracted away from the problems with racism in the South.
- The Reconstruction period ended when the last military troops were pulled out of the South as part of the Compromise of 1877. The problems with racism in the South had only gotten worse than they were before the Civil War. Segregation laws (a.k.a. Jim Crow Laws) dominated the South. Blacks had little to no access to education, and they were trapped in debt by the sharecropping systems. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld segregation with their “separate but equal” ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. The political carton below says it all.
I hope this overview was helpful! I referenced a lot of specific terms, and if you aren’t sure what any of them mean, be sure to look them up 😉