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Reconstruction and Its Aftermath: 1865–1915

During the period of Reconstruction (1865-77), Union policy evolved to embrace the total abolition of slavery, as provided in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1865. Government policy also moved toward equality of rights for African Americans as reflected in the 14th Amendment (1868) and 15th Amendment (1870) and in related legislation. Opposition to equal rights for blacks was almost universal in the South and widespread in the North, however. Passage of the 14th and 15th amendments had been primarily motivated by the desire of the Republican party to maintain political control in the former Confederacy.

Participation by African Americans. African Americans took an active part in all aspects of public life during Reconstruction. They voted in large numbers and were active in the conventions that formulated new state constitutions in the South. Many held political office at the local and state levels; 14 were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and 2 were elected to the U.S. Senate. African Americans pressed for and helped to establish systems of public education where none had previously existed. They established private schools and colleges with the assistance of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency, and Northern church groups. Legislation backed by federal troops made access to public accommodations possible. Many former slaves hoped that land confiscated from Confederate officials or land owned by the federal government might be divided into family farms and distributed among them. This was not done, however, and only a small number of blacks were able to purchase land, leaving the vast majority of Southern blacks economically dependent on former slave owners.

Opposition by Whites. The major attack on the rights of African Americans came from Southern whites, many of whom insisted that federal policies under Reconstruction were oppressive and vindictive. High on their list of complaints was the erroneous claim that state governments were controlled by blacks. Many sought to remove blacks from participation in politics and to restore, as closely as possible, conditions that existed before the war. As the federal government restored suffrage to former Confederates, a variety of legal and extralegal means were used to accomplish these goals. The illegal activities of the Ku Klux Klan and similar organizations founded in the late 1860s, coupled with waning interest in the North in protecting the rights of African American citizens, resulted in the gradual return of control of state governments into the hands of the Democratic party. This was effectively accomplished by 1877, when all federal troops were withdrawn from the South and Reconstruction was officially ended. White rule of the Southern states was fully restored, and the rights of black citizens were once again in jeopardy.

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