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African Americans After the Civil War

John Spiller surveys race relations in the United States during Reconstruction and constructs a balance sheet.

Before 1861 the vast majority of African Americans had been slaves and had no legal rights of which to speak. The formal abolition of slavery in 1865 was clearly a landmark in the progress of black Americans, but once freed they wanted land, education, and the vote, essentially in that order. Reconstruction and the aftermath undoubtedly brought gains for them (although some were short-lived), which can be broken down into economic, social/legal and political areas. 

Economic Progress 

In January 1865 an early attempt by General Sherman to redistribute 400,000 acres of abandoned rice plantations to African Americans was abruptly curtailed by President Johnson, and the self-sufficient African American community established under Tunis Campbell’s leadership on St Catherine’s Island, Georgia, also had to give up their land to its former owner in January 1866. Economic progress for African Americans would be slow, especially given that cotton remained the biggest export of the USA after the war, which meant that blacks needed to be kept in the field somehow. Most former slaves became wage-earning labourers and tenants. Various forms of sharecropping, In memory of Stephen Young (1970-2009), a History teacher who had a passion for all things American. share-renting, and crop-lien systems ensured that black tenants and croppers remained permanently in debt, and rarely got the chance to actually own their own land. When the price of cotton fell by nearly 50 per cent, between 1872 and 1877, the southern economy remained impoverished, and African Americans remained a deprived group within that context. 

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