Black Freedom

Learning Objectives

  • Describe Black political achievements and social changes during the Reconstruction era

Black Political Achievements

An illustration shows an elderly black man casting his ballot. Behind him is a line of black men, one of whom wears a military uniform, awaiting their turn.

Figure 1. The First Vote, by Alfred R. Waud, appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1867. The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black men the right to vote for the first time.

Black voter registration in the late 1860s and the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment finally brought what Lincoln had characterized as “a new birth of freedom.” Union Leagues, fraternal groups founded in the North that promoted loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party during the Civil War, expanded into the South after the war and were transformed into political clubs that served both political and civic functions. As centers of the Black communities in the South, the leagues became vehicles for the dissemination of information, acted as mediators between members of the Black community and the White establishment, and served other practical functions like helping to build schools and churches for the community they served. As extensions of the Republican Party, these leagues worked to enroll newly enfranchised black voters, campaign for candidates, and generally help the party win elections.

The political activities of the leagues launched a great many African Americans and former slaves into politics throughout the South. For the first time, Black people began to hold political office, and several were elected to the U.S. Congress. In the 1870s, fifteen members of the House of Representatives and two senators were Black. The two senators, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, were both from Mississippi, the home state of former U.S. senator and later Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Hiram Revels was a freeborn man from North Carolina who rose to prominence as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and then as a Mississippi state senator in 1869. The following year he was elected by the state legislature to fill one of Mississippi’s two U.S. Senate seats, which had been vacant since the war. His arrival in Washington, DC, drew intense interest: as the New York Times noted, when “the colored Senator from Mississippi, was sworn in and admitted to his seat this afternoon . . . there was not an inch of standing or sitting room in the galleries, so densely were they packed. . . . When the Vice-President uttered the words, ‘The Senator-elect will now advance and take the oath,’ a pin might have been heard drop.”

At least 270 other Black men served in patronage positions as postmasters, customs officials, assessors, and ambassadors. At the state level, more than 1,000 African American men held offices in the South. P. B. S. Pinchback served as Louisiana’s governor for thirty-four days after the previous governor was suspended during impeachment proceedings and was the only African American state governor until Virginia elected L. Douglas Wilder in 1989. Almost 800 Black men served as state legislators around the South, with Black men at one time making up a majority in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Watch It

This video highlights some of the Black men elected to political offices during Reconstruction, then the unfortunate reversal of the policies that led to their election as Reconstruction came to an end.

You can view the transcript for “Reconstruction: The Vote | Black History in Two Minutes (or so)” here (opens in new window).

Senator Revels on Segregated Schools in Washington, D.C.

A photograph of Hiram Revels is shown.

Figure 2. Hiram Revels served as a preacher throughout the Midwest before settling in Mississippi in 1866. When he was elected by the Mississippi state legislature in 1870, he became the country’s first African American senator.

Hiram R. Revels became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1870. In 1871, he gave the following speech about Washington’s segregated schools before Congress.

Will establishing such [desegregated] schools as I am now advocating in this District harm our white friends? . . . By some it is contended that if we establish mixed schools here a great insult will be given to the white citizens, and that the white schools will be seriously damaged. . . . When I was on a lecturing tour in the state of Ohio . . . [o]ne of the leading gentlemen connected with the schools in that town came to see me. . . . He asked me, “Have you been to New England, where they have mixed schools?” I replied, “I have sir.” “Well,” said he, “please tell me this: does not social equality result from mixed schools?” “No, sir; very far from it,” I responded. “Why,” said he, “how can it be otherwise?” I replied, “I will tell you how it can be otherwise, and how it is otherwise. Go to the schools and you see there white children and colored children seated side by side, studying their lessons, standing side by side and reciting their lessons, and perhaps in walking to school they may walk together; but that is the last of it. The white children go to their homes; the colored children go to theirs; and on the Lord’s day you will see those colored children in colored churches, and the white family, you will see the white children there, and the colored children at entertainments given by persons of their color.” I aver, sir, that mixed schools are very far from bringing about social equality.”

According to Senator Revels’ speech, what is “social equality” and why is it important to the issue of desegregated schools? Does Revels favor social equality or social segregation? Did social equality exist in the United States in 1871?

Though the fact of their presence was dramatic and important, as the New York Times description above demonstrates, the few African American representatives and senators who served in Congress during Reconstruction represented only a tiny fraction of the many hundreds, possibly thousands, of Black people who served in a great number of capacities at the local and state levels. The South during the early 1870s brimmed with freed enslaved laborers and freeborn Black people serving as school board commissioners, county commissioners, clerks of court, board of education and city council members, justices of the peace, constables, coroners, magistrates, sheriffs, auditors, and registrars. This wave of local African American political activity contributed to and was accompanied by a new concern for the poor and disadvantaged in the South. The Southern Republican leadership did away with the hated Black codes, undid the work of White supremacists, and worked to reduce obstacles confronting freed people.

Reconstruction governments invested in infrastructure, paying special attention to the rehabilitation of the Southern railroads. They set up public education systems that enrolled both White and Black students. They established or increased funding for hospitals, orphanages, and asylums for the insane. In some states, the state and local governments provided the poor with basic necessities like firewood and even bread. And to pay for these new services and subsidies, the governments levied taxes on land and property, an action that struck at the heart of the foundation of Southern economic inequality. Indeed, the land tax compounded the existing problems of White landowners, who were often cash-poor, and contributed to resentment of what Southerners viewed as another northern attack on their way of life.

White Southerners reacted with outrage at the changes imposed upon them. The sight of once-enslaved Black people serving in positions of authority as sheriffs, congressmen, and city council members stimulated great resentment at the process of Reconstruction and its undermining of the traditional social and economic foundations of the South. Indignant Southerners referred to this period of reform as a time of “negro misrule.” They complained of profligate corruption on the part of vengeful freed enslaved people and greedy northerners looking to fill their pockets with the South’s riches. Unfortunately for the great many honest reformers, Southerners did have a handful of real examples of corruption they could point to, such as legislators using state revenues to buy hams and perfumes or giving themselves inflated salaries. Such examples, however, were relatively few and largely comparable to nineteenth-century corruption across the country. Yet these powerful stories, combined with deep-seated racial animosity toward Black people in the South, led to Democratic campaigns to “redeem” state governments. Democrats across the South leveraged planters’ economic power and wielded White vigilante violence to ultimately take back state political power from the Republicans. By the time President Grant’s attentions were being directed away from the South and toward the Indian Wars in the West in 1876, power in the South had largely been returned to White people, and Reconstruction was effectively abandoned. By the end of 1876, only South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida still had Republican governments.

The sense that the South had been unfairly sacrificed to Northern vice and Black vengeance, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, persisted for many decades. So powerful and pervasive was this narrative that by the time D. W. Griffith released his 1915 motion picture, The Birth of a Nation, White people around the country were primed to accept the fallacy that White Southerners were the frequent victims of violence and violation at the hands of unrestrained Black people. The reality is that the opposite was true. White Southerners orchestrated a sometimes violent and generally successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction policies in the South beginning in the 1860s. Those who worked to change and modernize the South typically did so under the stern gaze of exasperated White people and threats of violence. Black Republican officials in the South were frequently terrorized, assaulted, and even murdered with impunity by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. When not ignoring the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments altogether, White leaders often used trickery and fraud at the polls to get the results they wanted. As Reconstruction came to a close, these methods came to define Southern life for Black people for nearly a century afterward.

Family Reunification

One aspect of the pursuit of freedom was the reconstitution of families. Many freedpeople immediately left plantations in search of family members who had been sold away. Newspaper ads sought information about long-lost relatives. People placed these ads until the turn of the twentieth century, demonstrating the enduring pursuit of family reunification. Freedpeople sought to gain control over their own children or other children who had been apprenticed to White masters either during the war or as a result of the Black Codes. Above all, freedpeople wanted freedom to control their families.

Many freedpeople rushed to solemnize unions with formal wedding ceremonies. Black people’s desires to marry fit the government’s goal to make free Black men responsible for their own households and to prevent Black women and children from becoming dependent on the government.

Black Schools and Churches

Freedpeople placed a great emphasis on education for their children and themselves. For many, the ability to finally read the Bible for themselves induced work-weary men and women to spend all evening or Sunday attending night school or Sunday school classes. It was not uncommon to find a one-room school with more than fifty students ranging in age from three to eighty. As Booker T. Washington famously described the situation, “it was a whole race trying to go to school. Few were too young, and none too old, to make the attempt to learn.”[1]

Many churches served as schoolhouses and as a result, became central to the freedom struggle. Free and freed Black Southerners carried well-formed political and organizational skills into freedom. They developed anti-racist politics and organizational skills through antislavery organizations turned church associations. Liberated from White-controlled churches, Black Americans remade their religious worlds according to their own social and spiritual desires.

One of the more marked transformations that took place after emancipation was the proliferation of independent Black churches and church associations. In the 1930s, nearly 40 percent of 663 Black churches surveyed had their organizational roots in the post-emancipation era. Many independent Black churches emerged in the rural areas, and most of them had never been affiliated with White churches.

Many of these independent churches were quickly organized into regional, state, and even national associations, often by brigades of free Black northerners and midwesterners who went to the South to help the freedmen. Through associations like the Virginia Baptist State Convention and the Consolidated American Baptist Missionary Convention, Baptists became the fastest-growing post-emancipation denomination, building on their antislavery associational roots and carrying on the struggle for Black political participation.

Tensions between northerners and Southerners over styles of worship and educational requirements strained these associations. Southern, rural Black churches preferred worship services with more emphasis on inspired preaching, while Black urban northerners favored more orderly worship and an educated ministry.

Perhaps the most significant internal transformation in churches had to do with the role of women—a situation that eventually would lead to the development of independent women’s conventions in Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches. Women like Nannie Helen Burroughs and Virginia Broughton, leaders of the Baptist Woman’s Convention, worked to protect Black women from sexual violence from White men. Black representatives repeatedly articulated this concern in state constitutional conventions early in the Reconstruction era. In churches, women continued to fight for equal treatment and access to the pulpit as preachers. Even though they were able to vote in church meetings, they desired more prominent roles in church leadership.

Black churches provided centralized leadership and organization in post-emancipation communities. Many political leaders and officeholders were ministers. Churches were often the largest building in town and served as community centers. Access to pulpits and growing congregations provided a foundation for ministers’ political leadership. Groups like the Union League, militias, and fraternal organizations all used the regalia, ritual, and even hymns of churches to inform and shape their practice.

Black churches provided space for conflict over gender roles, cultural values, practices, norms, and political engagement. With the rise of Jim Crow, Black churches would enter a new phase of negotiating relationships within the community and the wider world.

Try It


Union Leagues: fraternal groups loyal to the Union and the Republican Party that became political and civic centers for Black people in former Confederate states

  1. Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (New York: Doubleday, 1900), 30.