AN ERA OF PROMISE
In the years after Emancipation, the United States entered a period known as Reconstruction. During Reconstruction—which lasted from 1863 to 1877—the nation attempted to rebuild itself following the Civil War. In the aftermath of war and the abolishment of chattel slavery, the goals of Reconstruction included reuniting the country, rewriting its laws and Constitution, and taking the first steps toward creating a multiracial democracy.
Anti-racist ideas—ones that challenged the oppressive system that treated White people as superior and Black people as inferior—slowly began to circulate throughout the nation. For the first time in U.S. history, notable numbers of White Americans began to participate in efforts to transform the United States. Perhaps this would no longer be a nation that merely professed that "all men were created equal"—even as it counted Black people as three fifths of a human being for the purposes of assigning states political power and slavery existed in fourteen states. Thus began the long, and ongoing, journey to becoming a nation that sought to treat people of all races fairly.
Beginning in 1865, the U.S. Constitution was amended to abolish slavery, to grant full citizenship and equal application of the law to the formerly enslaved, and to grant voting rights to Black males (back then, no women of any race could vote). Together, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments formed a second Bill of Rights for Black Americans. The Freedmen's Bureau was also established to protect formerly enslaved people from violence and aid the transition to a life of freedom.
As these laws and other societal changes slowly began to unfold, Black men, women, and children began to experience the chance to live as free and independent human beings—many for the first time. Though desperately poor and on the verge of starvation, many Black people—particularly those in the South—embarked upon costly, difficult, and dangerous travels to safer locations, relocating to hamlets, towns, and cities all over the country.
Black women, men, and children sought basic liberties, such as to be their own person, to not be controlled by a White person, and to not be subject to White supremacist violence. Many freed men and women dreamed of owning a small farm or business in order to provide for their family. They wanted to spend their time taking care of their own children rather than being forced to take care of White people's children. They aspired to help other Black people build new lives and create caring communities where they could actively participate in the new society.
Throughout the South and around the nation, Black people founded churches, started schools and colleges, taught each other how to read and write, and educated one another about the Constitution, all the changing laws, and their human rights. They created organizations to support the elderly, widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people in their communities. All of these activities would have been illegal during slavery.
Black people also began to exercise their right to vote, ran for political office, and actively engaged in creating laws and governments in cities and states around the nation. During Reconstruction, more than 1,500 Black men ran for and won federal, state, or local office in the South, including sixteen who were elected to Congress.
No longer restricted by enslavement, Black people in Southern states began to secure a wide variety of jobs as ministers, railroad workers, postal carriers, blacksmiths, sheriffs, and teachers. Black educators were a courageous lot. During slavery, it was illegal to teach a Black person to read, and enslaved Black people who learned to read risked extreme violence or even death. After Emancipation, large numbers of freed men, women, and children desperately wanted to learn to read, write, and further educate themselves so they could take charge of their lives, enjoy their freedom, and engage actively as American citizens. A large number of Black educators were women.
Black people hoped the nation might live up to its promise of being a land where all humans were created equal and deserved rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Faking Reality by Sara Fujimura.