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America's History in the Making

Reconstructing a Nation

Theme 2

Emancipation was only the beginning of a long road to equality for former slaves, as they improved their lives in the face of strong and determined opposition.

The Civil War was a war of liberation for the nation’s millions of African Americans—nearly nine out of ten had been enslaved at the conflict’s outset. Freedom meant the ability to travel, be paid for one’s labors, have civil rights, and to form families that would not be torn apart. The commonly repeated term “forty acres and a mule” symbolized the former slaves’ hopes that they would receive at least a small chance at making a good living.

Most Southern whites were determined to minimize these freedoms. Throughout Reconstruction, African Americans who asserted themselves risked violence and even death. In addition, as the federal government withdrew from the South, African Americans’ civil and economic rights shrank. However, their determination during these years changed the trajectory of American history.

Primary Sources

Texts

Text Artifact

A Freedman's Work Contract, 1865

Tait labor contract, (LPR 35, Box 1, Folder 2) Alabama Department of Archives and History, www.archives.state.al.us/teachers/recon/recon1.html.

Text Artifact

Protest of the Freedmen of Edisto Island to General Howard, 1865

Henry Bram et al. to Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, [Oct. 28?, 1865]; and Henry Bram et al. to the President of these United States, Oct. 28, 1865; B-53 1865 and P-27 1865, Letters Received (series 15), Washington Headquarters, RG 105, NARA.

Text Artifact

Texas Black Code

Eleventh Texas Legislature, TEXAS BLACK CODE (1866). Courtesy of the Brazoria County Historical Museum.

Text Artifact

Want Ads for Lost Relatives 1865-67

The Colored Tennessean, WANT ADS, (Aug. 12, Oct. 7, 14, 1865; Mar. 24, 31, 1866). Courtesty of Library of Congress.


Artifacts

Harper's Weekly Depictions of Memphis Race Riot, 1866

Alfred Rudolph Waud, SCENES IN MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE DURING THE RIOT (1866). Courtesy Library of Congress.

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