Rebuilding the Old Order

Many Southerners, whether white or black, rich or poor, barely recognized the world they now lived in. Wealthy whites, long-accustomed to plush plantation life and the perks of political power, now found themselves barred from voting and holding office. Their estates were in shambles; African-Americans rejected returning to work for them. Poor white farmers now found blacks competing with them for jobs and land.

Reconstruction offered a window of hope for the freed slave. Those born into slavery could now vote and own land. In parts of the South, blacks could ride with whites on trains and eat with them in restaurants. Schools, orphanages, and public relief projects aimed at improving the lives of blacks were emerging all over the South. Perhaps most stunning of all, African-Americans were holding political office, becoming sheriffs and judges as well as being elected to school boards and city councils. About 600 blacks served as legislators on the local level. But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Economically, African-Americans were disadvantaged. Most had skills suited to the plantations. By the early 1870s sharecropping became the dominant way for the poor to earn a living. Wealthy whites allowed poor whites and blacks to work land in exchange for a share of the harvest. Sharecroppers often found themselves in debt, and if debt exceeded harvest revenues, the sharecropper remained bound to the owner, this system resembled slavery.

Many whites rejected the changes taking place. Taxes were high, the economy was stagnant, and corruption was rampant. Carpetbaggers and scalawags made matters worse: carpetbaggers were Northerners who saw the shattered South as a chance to get rich quickly by seizing political office. After the war, these Yankees hastily packed old-fashioned travelling bags called carpetbags and rushed South. Scalawags were Southern whites who allied themselves with the carpetbaggers and also took advantage of the political openings.

Out of a marriage of hatred and fear, the Ku Klux Klan, and other supremacy groups were born—aimed at controlling African Americans through violence and intimidation. Massacres, lynching, rape, pillaging and terror were common. Emancipated blacks began finding the new world looking much like the old world. Pressure to return to plantations increased. Poll taxes, violence at the ballot box, and literacy tests kept African Americans from voting- sidestepping the 15th Amendment.

Slavery was over, and the struggle for equality had just begun.

Source: Rebuilding the Old Order
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