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

Updated: May 17, 2022



Chicago-Kent Law Review

Volume 70

Issue 2 Symposium on the Law of Freedom Part 1

Freedom: Personal Liberty and Private Law

Article 6

Donald G. Nieman



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.