Free In Name Only

Nkrumah History

Fact #22 of 28

T The Civil War is over. And the question remains, what to do with 200,000 largely illiterate, profoundly ignorant to the ways of the world, landless, moneyless, and homeless population?

Hello? Anybody? Don’t all raise your hands all at once?

After the war, it seemed everyone was trying to steer the narrative concerning the war including what it was about. Henry L. Flash surmised that the Civil War was fought because the South took three great “nonsenses” as truths; “the Yankees wouldn’t fight, that Cotton was King, and that a slaveholder’s government could depend on ‘the faithfulness of the slaves’”.

Robert E. Lee even got involved. Lee began going on record that he always favored emancipation even before the war and that he gladly embraced it when it came. Yet here was a man who in 1863, in Pennsylvania, ordered his troops hunt down free blacks, who weren’t even slaves and forcibly march them to Virginia to be slaves. Maybe he did hate slavery. He sure had a peculiar way of showing it.

Some former Slave-owners found the possibility of living in a world without slaves not worth living in. They, their fathers, their grandfathers even their grandfather’s grandfather had all lived in a world where enslaved Africans waited on them from cradle to the grave. You want to talk about identity and not meeting expectations, losing this war and giving all of that up was like failing to meet the most necessary expectation there was. The idea of living in a world with Negro equality was literally too heavy for them to carry. Edmund Ruffin, the person who is credited for “firing the first shot of the Civil War at the Battle of Fort Sumter”, retreated to his study, put a rifle muzzle into his mouth and used a forked stick to pull the trigger putting an end to any chances of him living in a world with Negro equality.

I has got thirteen great-gran’ chilluns, an’ I knows whar day ever’one am. In slavery times dey’d have been on de block some time ago.Jacob Thomas
But other former slave-owners were not so quick to admit that there wasn’t a way to preserve their peculiar institution. Some 10,000 former slave-owners actually left the United States to places like Cuba, Mexico and Brazil hoping to resume their lifestyles there. One former Slave-owner Kirby Smith took his most trusted and faithful slaves with him to Rio Grande only to realize that Mexico had outlawed slavery in the 1830s. Unfortunately, once his slaves realized this, “All of our Negroes decided to leave us upon our arrival.”
Robert Toombs and John C. Breckinridge went to Cuba with similar aspirations but regretfully learned from the jittery Slave-owners there that their enslaved Africans had already caught wind of what happened in America and were “fermenting with ideas engendered by American emancipation.”

In more remote parts of the south slave-masters just neglected to tell their slaves that they were free. In fact, in states like Texas (I’m not surprised) and even some remote parts of Georgia (again, who would’ve thought?) slave-owners told their slaves that Lincoln had been killed, nothing had changed, so get back to work. And they did continue to work for over a year in some cases.

Realizing that it was just a matter of time now that enslaved Africans in the United States had been emancipated that slaves everywhere would just stop cooperating, a proverbial light bulb went off over their heads. Just because their political system was in shambles, didn’t mean that their social structure had to go anywhere, right? Southern Elite immediately began working on a way to keep black people “free” in name only.

In 1865, elections were held throughout the South and soon laws were passed that were designed to establish a “kind of slavery” to put these mostly illiterate, ignorant, homeless, poor, unskilled workforce to use. Known as “black codes” they denied individual rights to freedpeople, including the right to move about freely or even to move at all. These laws denied freedpeople the right to seek new employment, to negotiate with employers over wages and even denied them the right to secure custody of their own children in case any of them got the big idea to head up North. If any freedpeople were caught trying to leave the south, the State could take their children away from them. The threat of that alone would deter most if not all from trying to leave the South until the southern Elite could again put them to use.

It was these “black codes” that finally motivated the Federal government to act. The Republican majority in congress invalidated these Southern elections of 1865-1866, overturned these “black codes” that they had passed and lastly, and most importantly, amended the U.S. Constitution so that black men could vote so that they could protect their own rights and interests. Giving Black men the right to vote was not entirely altruistic, doing this also created an electorate for the Republican Party that hadn’t existed before, giving it the votes it would need to enforce its policies in the postwar South. Prior to the civil war, largely due to the disproportionate amount of political power the U.S. Constitution gave to the Southern Aristocracy, all branches of the Federal Government were dominated by Southern Aristocrats. However, after the civil war and after Black men were given the right to vote it would be 50 years before another man from the South would hold the office of the Presidency or preside over the Senate.
It was the invalidating of these Black codes that officially ushered in the period known as the Reconstruction Era (1865 to 1877); however, the Southern Elite used this time to revamp the blueprint that had been laid down with these “black codes” into a much harsher, although more subtle Jim Crow social code. By subtle, I only mean to imply by comparison, as there wasn’t anything subtle about it.

Like the Black codes that came before them, the intention of Jim Crow law was clear; force blacks to fall back toward slavery, but not back into slavery. And sadly, slavery was so terrible that Jim Crow by comparison wasn’t so bad at all. Former slave Jacob Thomas kept things in perspective, “I has got thirteen great-gran’ chilluns, an’ I knows whar day ever’one am. In slavery times dey’d have been on de block some time ago.”

It’s all about perspective. From the perspective of a former slave, being told that he can own a house, but it has to be in a particular place is a million miles away from where he couldn’t own a home at all. Telling him that he could only get paid to do certain types of work is a million miles ahead of not being paid at all for any work that he did.

Although Jim Crow laws violated every principle that our democracy is built upon, they would stand firm in the United States for the next 89 years! Consider this, after Ulysses S. Grant (an actual general in the Civil War) no Black man or woman would legally cast a ballot in the South for a United States Presidential election until Lyndon B. Johnson. This means iconic American Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy never won the office of the Presidency without a single vote cast by an African-American in the South.

Jim Crow Laws only highlight one of the themes I have been pointing out throughout these updates. The root cause of race relations in America is not hate, misunderstanding, mistrust or any of those things. Our problems are built upon our identity, and consequently the relationship that those definitions demand we meet. What it would eventually need to drive Jim Crow laws down would be African Americans with no personal recollection of the horrors of slavery, to build the courage to pay the price it would take to expunge Jim Crow once and for all. And that price would be extremely steep.