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(Freeman, 2007). None of the programs was responsible, and freed slaves, especially in rural areas, were left with no property and few prospects following emancipation.
Unfortunately, slaves who did not choose to leave their plantations helped establish the precedence of sharecropping, which led to the virtual re-enslavement of a new generation of African-Americans after Reconstruction. Under the practice of sharecropping, a farmer works on someone else's land, and promises to pay the landowner with a percentage of the crop. The problem with sharecropping is that the tenant farmer often has to buy supplies from the landowner and pay all types of fees. The end result was that many tenant farmers became more indebted to the landowners with every passing year:
As Republicans in the South were driven from office or killed by terrorists, sharecroppers were left without protection and were frequently cheated by white landowners. Laws forced debtors to work the land until debts were paid, and landowners often manipulated credit to insure that sharecroppers ended each year in debt. Those who questioned the landowner's accounting might be arrested for bad debt. Those convicted were often leased out to work on the same plantation, but without wages. Landowners in need of laborers might have local police invoke vagrancy laws against blacks who refused low-paying jobs. (MSN Encarta, 2007).
These practices were expanded and exacerbated under Jim Crow, and, in reality, continue to exist in some of the more isolated and rural parts of the American south.
Politically, Reconstruction gave African-Americans the opportunity to meaningfully participate in self-governance. Because the former Confederate states were federally occupied, former slaves were able to exercise the right to vote. Not only did this mean that former slaves had an impact on who was governing them, but also that African-Americans could attain office. Some of these changes were meaningful, while others were largely symbolic.
For example, "in states with the largest black populations, African-Americans and their white Republican allies established and improved public education for white and black students, ended property qualifications for voting, abolished imprisonment for debt, and integrated public facilities." (MSN Encarta, 2007). However, when John W. Menard became the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1868, the change was largely symbolic because Congress refused to seat Menard. (MSN Encarta, 2007). However, Congress eventually had to recognize African-American representatives: "in all, 20 blacks from Southern states served in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction." (MSN Encarta, 2007). Local and state level officials met with more success; African-Americans were elected in high numbers and demonstrated extreme competence as elected officials during Reconstruction.
The increased political power of African-Americans elicited an incredibly negative reaction from southern Democrats, which continues to impact race relations in the United States. It was during Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups began attacking American citizens, trying to prevent blacks from exercising political or social power:
Hundreds of blacks were killed for attempting to vote, for challenging segregation, for organizing workers, or even for attending school. In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant declared martial law in nine South Carolina counties because of the proliferation of lynchings and beatings. In 1873 white terrorists massacred more than 60 blacks on Easter Sunday in Colfax, Louisiana, and killed 60 Republicans, both blacks and whites, during the summer of 1874 in nearby Coushatta. They killed 75 Republicans in Vicksburg, Mississippi in December 1874. (MSN Encarta, 2007)
Furthermore, this terrorism did not end with Reconstruction. On the contrary, the same tactics were used to keep blacks in a subservient position under Jim Crow. More notably, racial terrorism escalated during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, when African-Americans again sought to exercise their political and social freedoms.
Obviously, Reconstruction has significance for African-Americans. It was during Reconstruction that Congress based the laws that guarantee equality for modern African-Americans. Furthermore, it was during Reconstruction that African-Americans got their first taste of political and civil freedoms. While the post-Reconstruction backlash in the South was tremendous, northern blacks built upon those freedoms, and southern blacks used the tools they had available, such as religion, to do their best to maintain the gains made under Reconstruction. The result was that by the time of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, there were sufficient numbers of educated, organized, and determined African-Americans to force the social changes that Reconstruction promised.
Freeman, Gerene. (2007). What about My 40 Acres & a Mule? Retrieved October 29, 2007 from Yale New Haven Teachers Institute.
Web Site: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1994/4/94.04.01.x.html
Library of Congress. (2002). Reconstruction and Its Aftermath: Part One. Retrieved October
29, 2007 from African-American Odyssey.
Web Site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart5.html.
Library of Congress. (2002). Reconstruction and Its Aftermath: Part Two. Retrieved October 29, 2007 from African-American Odyssey.
Web Site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/aaohtml/exhibit/aopart5b.html.
MSN Encarta. (2007). African-American History. Retrieved October 30, 2007 from MSN
Web Site: http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761595158_1/African_American_History.html
Q&a: The Myths of Reconstruction. Retrieved October 30, 2007 from PBS.
Web Site: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reconstruction/plantation/sf_myths.html#a[continue]
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