1865-1965: black codes, Red Summer

pogroms against black people

An End to Police Brutality
USED BY Dr. Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr., on
August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC
With all the talk about Juneteenth 1865, it’s important to note how awful the NEXT century was for black Americans. I would posit that the century (1865-1965) was arguably worse.

My view is certainly affected by white compatriots in the 1970s and later. They would say, often genuinely, “Why are black people doing so poorly? Slavery ended over a century ago!” As though there was a light switch from enslavement to freedom. As though it were suddenly a level playing field. Here are some of the factors. Of course, they naturally overlap.

The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. This provision is why one should watch Thirteenth.

Reparations. The formerly enslaved people generally did not receive the promised 40 acres.

Black codes: their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity, including “strict vagrancy and labor contract laws… Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating, and forced labor… Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, [they] were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces—often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War—across the South.” The federal government turned a blind eye.

You can never get out from under

Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude: a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Those hundreds of White men, were hired by several southern states as police officers.

“Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women, and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.” In other words, it was…

Slavery by Another NameSlavery by Another Name: Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, made into a documentary. “Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers…" [Compare this with the current discussion on bail reform.] Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.”

A couple of examples: “In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off.

“In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to ‘apprentice’ the child to an ’employer’. Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience and to recapture them if they ran away."

“It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. Peonage didn’t end until after World War II.” And unlike a slave, who was considered property, the prisoner, if they died, could just be replaced by another prisoner to work in the factory.

Federal abandonment

The end of Reconstruction: the federal response to Reconstruction, often spotty, ended with the compromise that made Rutherford B. Hayes President.

The Ku Klux Klan: a terrorist organization of vigilantes designed “to intimidate Southern blacks – and any whites who would help them.”

Jim Crow Laws – a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. They were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death.” It was codified by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This was the period when those hated Confederate statues were being built in large numbers.

Elaine, AR, et al.

Pogroms: “There is a long history of white terrorism destroying Black communities.” So it’s “not just Tulsa.” Here are Five Other Race Massacres That Devastated Black America. Some of the worst of it were in the …

Red Summer. Between April and November of 1919,, there were “approximately 25 riots and instances of white mob violence [and] 97 recorded lynchings.”

In the small town of Elaine, Arkansas, racial tensions turned brutally violent after African-American sharecroppers tried to unionize. A staggering 237 people were estimated to be hunted down and killed in what is now known as the Elaine Massacre. The bloodbath made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

Birth of a Nation: “D. W. Griffith’s disgustingly racist yet titanically original 1915 feature film.” It and the presence of returning black WWI vets inspired both The Red Summer and a resurgence of the KKK.

Federal wealth theft

Redlining: In 1933, “faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock.” Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law, examines the local, state, and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods.”

The G.I. Bill. It “provided financial support in the form of cash stipends for schooling, low-interest mortgages, job skills training, low-interest loans, and unemployment benefits. But many African Americans who served in World War II never saw these benefits.” And not just in the South. This lost potential for creating wealth had generational implications.

This is a very cursory view of 1865-1965. I left off the last 15 years, the “classic” Civil Rights era of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, et al. In any case, it should be clear that the century after the Civil War, black people were hardly “free.”

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

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