"The codes required that blacks sign annual labor contracts with plantation, mill, or mine owners If African Americans refused or could show no proof of gainful employment, they would be charged with vagrancy and put on the auction block, with their labor sold to the highest bidder. The supposed contract was beyond binding; it was more like a shackle, for African Americans were forbidden to seek better wages and working conditions with another employer. No matter how intolerable the working conditions, if they left the plantation, lumber camp, or mine, they would be jailed and auctioned off. They were trapped. Self-sufficiency itself was illegal, as black couldn't hold any other employment besides laborer or domestic (unless they had the written consent of the mayor or judge) and were also banned from hunting and fishing, and thus denied the means even to stave off hunger. More galling yet was a provision whereby black children who had been sold before the war and hadn't yet reunited with their parents were to be apprenticed off, with the former masters having the first right to their labor. Finally, the penalty for defiance, insulting gestures, and inappropriate behavior, the Black Codes made clear, was a no-holds-barred whipping." (White Rage, p. 19)That paragraph was to get your attention. It describes the post Emancipation Proclamation, post civil war conditions in much of the South. As I wrote this post chronologically, this was toward the end. But it begged to lead off the post. It most graphically shows how diabolically southern states reintroduced what was essentially slavery. They were able to do this, and continue it into the 20th Century, in part because the Supreme Court found legal points with which to override the obvious injustices that were perpetrated against blacks.
I'm reading Carol Anderson's White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide for my next book club meeting. This is a difficult book to read because it tells painful stories. And as much as I like to think that I've dug deeper into race stuff than the average white American, this book is filling in details of stories that, if covered in history books, were done so in sweeping generalities that didn't make the continuing post-civil war de facto slavery and evil clear.
In Part I of these posts, I'm relating the conditions that led to staggeringly atrocious court decisions after the civil war. Without these contextual details, the court decisions are dry and lifeless with no hint of the real tragic impact they had on people's lives.
How many of us can explain Plessy, Dred Scott, or even the 13th, 14th, or 15th Amendments, let alone their impact on the lives of African-Americans?
The key point of the chapter I'm now reading - the post civil-war period - is that while African-Americans had been emancipated, they were still virtually slaves. And there was wholesale unpunished slaughter of African-Americans in the South, and sometimes in the North as well. How did this work?
After a quote about the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City where black men and women were attacked, the men hanged or beaten to death and sexually mutilated, Anderson goes on to write:
"This violence was simply the most overt, virulent expression of a stream of anti-black sentiment that conscribed the lives of both the free and the enslaved. Every state admitted to the Union since 1819, starting with Maine, embedded in their constitutions discrimination against blacks, especially the denial of the right to vote. In addition, only Massachusetts did not exclude African Americans from juries; and many states, from California to Ohio, prohibited blacks from testifying in court against someone who was white." (p. 12)After the civil war, the government needed 'an absolute resolve' to protect and assist the four million newly freed slaves and recognize them as citizens of the US. They needed, first, to make sure that the old slave owning leaders of the South didn't come back into power, Anderson writes. But Lincoln wanted to go easy on the rebel leaders.
"His plan for rebuilding the nation required only that the secessionist states adopt the Thirteenth Amendment and have 10 percent of eligible voters (white propertied males) swear loyalty to the United States."
"One official stationed in the now-defeated South noted, 'Wherever I go - the street, the shop, the house, or the steamboat - I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all.' He further explained how murder, rape, and robbery, in this Kafkaesque world, were not seen as crimes at all so long as whites were the perpetrators and blacks the victims. Given this poisonous atmosphere, he warned, 'The people boast that when they get freedmen affairs in their own hands, to use their own classic expression, 'the niggers will catch hell.''" (pp. 12-13)Picking out what to quote here is hard. I'm trying to give a sense of the tangible conditions Anderson writes about as well as the legal and economic structures put into place to maintain the servitude and second class non-citizenship of newly freed slaves. Suffrage, despite the need, was not part of Lincoln's plan, which was consistent with Lincoln's prior views.
"'I am not," Lincoln had said, 'nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.'" (p.14)If this wasn't bad enough, it got much worse after Lincoln was assassinated. Andrew Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat. Anderson tells us that Johnson had, during the war, blasted the Confederate leadership and wealthy plantation owners, but from the perspective of a poorer white, who felt they should be punished as traitors. But his anger at the white leadership did not include any sympathy for the blacks.
The civil war, Anderson says, was, in Lincoln's and in Johnson's minds, just for preserving the union, while Southerners had made it clear that their departure from the union was to preserve the institution of slavery. Johnson's antipathy toward the white aristocracy of the South evaporated.
"First, within weeks after taking office, Johnson pardoned scores of former Confederates, ignoring Congress's 1862 Ironclad Test Oath that expressly forbade him to do so, and handed out full amnesty to thousands whom, just the year before, he had called 'guerrillas and cut-throats' and 'traitors . . .[who] ought to be hung.' Beneficiaries of his largesse included the head of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee, and even CSA vice president Alexander Stephens. Even more shocking, given Johnson's decades-long resentment against and vilification of the 'damnable aristocracy,' his generosity and forgiveness extended to the planation owners themselves." (p. 15)Except for the opening quote, we haven't even gotten to the really evil parts of all this. First Anderson was setting up the context. This didn't all happen without some pushback in Congress. They set up an organization to help freed slaves learn how to handle their new emancipation. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land's
"charge was to lease forty-acre parcels that would provide economic self-sufficiency to a people who had endured hundreds of years in unpaid toil."Land was reserved for them in various places, like coastal Georgia and South Carolina.
But as president Johnson did little to follow through on that. General Oliver O. Howard, the Freedman's Bureau head immediately began plans to transfer the lands. Anderson quotes W.E.B. Du Bois on Howard,
"Howard was neither a great administrator nor a great man, but he was a good man. He was sympathetic and humane, and tried with endless application and desperate sacrifice to do a hard, thankless duty. Howard made clear that whatever amnesty President Johnson may have bestowed on Southern rebels did not 'extend to . . . abandoned or confiscated property."(pp. 15-16)But President Johnson began immediately to subvert Howard's mission, relieving him of his command and
". . . commanding the army to throw tens of thousands of freedpeople off the land and reinstall the plantation owners." (p. 16)Anderson tells us that Johnson had long been a supporter of the Homestead Act, having pushed well before the Civil War for taking plantation land from the rich and giving it to the poor. But not to blacks. And all the Confederate leaders he had pardoned, were now elected members of Congress and leaders of their states.
"As he welcomed one 'niggers will catch hell' state after the next back into the Union with no mention whatsoever of black voting rights and, thus, no political protection, he effectively laid the groundwork for mass murder.And so the southern states began to reestablish their white supremacist governments. This next quote does mention one of the court cases we'll get into in Part II of this post.
One of the president's emissaries, Carl Schurz, recoiled as he traveled through the South and gathered reports of African American women who had been 'scalped,' had their 'ears cut off,' or had been thrown into a river and drowned amid chants for them to swim to the 'damned Yankees.' [Steve's note: Think about how that phrase became normalized enough to be the name of a popular New York musical about a baseball team without any lingering trace of this horrible context.] Young black boys and men were routinely stabbed, clubbed, and shot. some were even 'chained to a tree and burned to death.' In what can only be described as a travelogue of death, as he went from county to county, state to state, he conveyed the sickening unbearable stench of decomposing black bodies hanging from limbs, rotting in ditches, and clogging the roadways. White southerners, it was obvious, had unleashed a reign of terror and anti-black violence that had reached 'staggering proportions.' Many urged the president to strengthen the federal presence in the South. Johnson refused, choosing instead, to 'reside over . . . this slow-motioned genocide.' The lack of a vigorous - or for that matter, any response only further encouraged white Southerners, who recognized that they now had a friend in the White House. One former cabinet member in the Confederacy 'later admitted that . . . the white sSough was so devastated and demoralized it would have accepted almost any of the North's terms. But . . . once Johnson 'held up before us the hope of a white man's government,' it led '[us] to set aside negro suffrage' and to resist Northern plans to improve the condition of the freedmen.' Thus emboldened, Virginia's rebellion-twined leaders planned to 'accomplish . . . with votes what they have failed to accomplish with bayonets.'" (pp. 17-18)
"The delegates at Louisiana's Constitutional Conference in October 1865 were so confident in the president's support and their reclaimed power that they resolved, "We hold this to be a Government of white people, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the white race; and in accordance with the constant adjudication of the United States Supreme Court' - specifically, the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1856, wherein Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had stated explicitly that black people have 'no rights which the white man is bound to respect.' The Louisiana delegates concluded 'that people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States.' (p. 18)Mississippi was next.
"As noted by Du Bois, the notorious Black Codes 'were an astonishing affront to emancipation' and made 'plain and indisputable' the 'attempt on the part of the Southern states to make Negroes slaves in everything but name.' (p. 19)And here, back to the opening quote, which is worth repeating, is how they did that.
"The codes required that blacks sign annual labor contracts with plantation, mill, or mine owners If African Americans refused or could show no proof of gainful employment, they would be charged with vagrancy and put on the auction block, with their labor sold to the highest bidder. The supposed contract was beyond binding; it was more like a shackle, for African Americans were forbidden to seek better wages and working conditions with another employer. No matter how intolerable the working conditions, if they left the plantation, lumber camp, or mine, they would be jailed and auctioned off. They were trapped. Self-sufficiency itself was illegal, as black couldn't hold any other employment besides laborer or domestic (unless they had the written consent of the mayor or judge) and were also banned from hunting and fishing, and thus denied the means even to stave off hunger. More galling yet was a provision whereby black children who had been sold before the war and hadn't yet reunited with their parents were to be apprenticed off, with the former masters having the first right to their labor. Finally, the penalty for defiance, insulting gestures, and inappropriate behavior, the Black Codes made clear, was a no-holds-barred whipping." (p. 19)
In Part II, we'll look at some of the Supreme Court decisions that made it possible for the South to reinstate de facto slavery right after the Civil War.
It's also worth thinking about how some people talk about how blacks have had plenty of time to rise up from slavery. The civil war ended, they remind everyone, in 1865. That's over 150 years. Anderson shows us in this book that black lives did not improve much, if at all, after the civil war. For many they got worse. Slavery, in reality, didn't end in the South until much later. But significant legal barriers to equality didn't end in the 1960s either. These many barriers have made it significantly harder for African Americans to get financing from banks to start businesses and buy homes, to even legally buy homes in most neighborhoods, to get equal education, to get jobs, to even avoid prison. As the movie 13th* documents, many laws like the ones in the opening quote here, made it easy to target African American men for arrest and imprisonment. The prisons then turned them over to farms and other businesses that needed manual labor under plantation slavery conditions. In fact the intent of the laws was to insure a cheap supply of labor. Many people's home deeds have covenants that forbid selling the homes to blacks. While the covenants are no longer valid, they were written in such a way to make it nearly impossible to remove them from the covenants.
*13th which refers to the 13th Amendment, was nominated for best documentary academy award and won many other awards. It's available online through Netflix and is well worth watching for people who want to understand how our system perpetuates racial prejudice and discrimination for the financial benefit of private prison owners and others.
[UPDATE April 18, 2017: Part II is now up here.