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African Americans:Meaning of Freedom:Washington County, Texas as a Case Study1865-1886 #BlackHistory

Updated: May 17, 2022




Reconstruction witnessed revolutionary changes in public life in America. During the late 1860s and early 1870s, congressional Republicans sounded what Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull called "the trumpet of freedom,"1 adopting a sweeping program of constitutional amendments and legislation guaranteeing citizenship, civil equality, and political rights to the freedmen. Yet historians often have discounted Reconstruction's revolutionary nature, arguing that the era's constitutional and legal changes had few actual consequences.2 The sweeping phrases of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment's extension of the right to vote did little, they contend, to alter the grim realities of African-American life. Such critics point out that even though black votes temporarily transformed the political landscape of the South, bringing Republicans to power, the vast majority of Republican office-holders were white men who used their authority to promote programs that marginally benefitted blacks. And even this was short-lived; by 1877, white Democrats had re-established control throughout the South. Moreover, there is widespread agreement among scholars that the Republican Reconstruction program was fundamentally flawed. 3 Rejecting programs that would have afforded African Americans meaningful access to landownership, Republicans sought to guarantee former slaves freedom and opportunity by granting them legal and political rights. Most scholars agree that this approach was inadequate because it failed to afford black southerners the economic basis necessary to achieve substantive freedom and left them vulnerable to domination by white planters. As a result, during the late nineteenth century, black agricultural laborers and sharecroppers existed in a sort of limbo between slavery and freedom. They remained desperately poor and dependent on white landowners, much as their slave forbearers had been. Despite the sound and fury in Congress and the state legislatures, these scholars conclude, the changes in the lives of African Americans were quite meager. This analysis is certainly not without merit, especially in emphasizing the relationship between property ownership and substantive freedom. Nevertheless, it fails to appreciate the radical consequences of the law of freedom. In a caste-bound society just emerging from slavery, the rule of law and civil and political equality had dramatic effects. In communities across the South, emancipation and congressional Reconstruction policies helped transform public life and private relationships in profound ways, opening opportunities for the creation of autonomous institutions in the African-American community, creating a vibrant bi-racial democracy, transforming the legal system, and nurturing an assertiveness on the part of African Americans that was essential to freedom.

These changes, of course, did not happen simply because Congress mandated them. Rather, they occurred because bold, courageous, and ambitious individuals in hundreds of southern communities took advantage of the opportunities opened by the new order. African Americans played an especially vital role in this process. They eagerly used their rights as free men and women to assert the independence of whites and to build community institutions. They also grasped the rights of citizenship, registering and voting in numbers that shocked and alarmed southern whites. African Americans not only formed the bone and muscle of the Republican coalition; a remarkable group of black political leaders quickly emerged as active players in the political process and shaped the direction of political change in their communities. Moreover, political power gave African Americans a voice in the local criminal justice system, an institution that affected their day-to-day lives in important ways. Thus the activism and assertiveness of black leaders and the black rank and file made Reconstruction at the grassroots something more profound than one set of white elites replacing another. If we are to understand the force of the winds of change sweeping the South during Reconstruction, we must look to the grass roots-to individual communities-for that is where Radical Reconstruction had its most radical consequences. This article looks at one community, examining the role of African Americans in Washington County, Texas in using the legal and political rights they won during Reconstruction to achieve a greater measure of freedom.



Benjamin O. Watrous


Camptown Map


Conclusion- "Yet the democracy that African Americans and their white allies forged, if transitory, was both remarkable and important. The Washington County experience testified to the power of ordinary people to affect the political and legal processes and to use politics and law to gain a larger measure of control over their lives. It also clearly demonstrates that something more than a kind of political musical chair was going on in the Reconstruction South. Viewed from this vantage point, Reconstruction was something far more profound than one group of white elites replacing another. Across the South, African-American communities that had taken root during slavery produced institutions and leaders that were powerful forces for democratic change. Using the legal and political rights opened to them by Reconstruction, they brought to a caste-ridden society vibrant democratic politics that made public life more open, public policy more equitable, and the ideal of equal justice under the law more approachable. This was a truly remarkable accomplishment. That it did not survive was tragic for the South as well as for African Americans. That it occurred, however, left its mark on African-American culture, creating an impulse that would be felt in the civil rights struggles of the twentieth century". #BlackHistoryMonth #AfricanAmerican #BlackHistory #History #America #Texas #WashingtonCounty

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