A richly detailed history of former slaves’ rising to political involvement in the American South after the Civil War.
Egerton (History/Le Moyne Coll.; Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War, 2010, etc.) recalls Reconstruction at the state and local levels, where thousands of black veterans, activists, ministers, assemblymen and others, with help from white allies, integrated streetcars and schools and ran for office in this “first progressive era in the nation’s history.” It was a remarkable time: Black voting and education surged across the South, and African-Americans held three of four congressional seats in South Carolina—the state most identified with slavery and secession. Many forces were at work: More than 175,000 African-Americans had served in the Union Army, and many became voters, activists, and eventually, state and federal officeholders. The federal Freedmen’s Bureau sponsored hundreds of schools for freed children, and black churches became increasingly significant. For all that, the “window of enormous opportunity” for reform was lost, mainly due to inaction by Andrew Johnson, “a racist, accidental president,” and whites’ guerrilla war against black Republicans. As states passed black codes to stymie gains, whites torched interracial schools and churches, blaming Northern agitators for filling freedmen’s heads with visions of equality. Egerton offers sharp sketches of freedmen, including Tunis Campbell, a black activist who supervised resettlement in Georgia; Oberlin-educated Blanche Kelso Bruce, who served as a U.S. senator from Mississippi; and war hero Robert Smalls, whose mistreatment on a Charleston streetcar prompted threats of a boycott of public transportation. He suggests that popular culture (Gone with the Wind, etc.) has sentimentalized the Old South and inaccurately portrayed Reconstruction as a vindictive, undemocratic period.
An illuminating view of an era whose reform spirit would live on in the 1960s civil rights movement.