Welcome to the third installment of the History Behind the Story Series for Charleston Tides. Today’s topic is very broad, and there is no way we could even scratch the surface in one post, so I am going to state the very basic facts to give you an idea of the enormity of the issue. I will also specifically focus on the aspects of this subject with which I chose to grapple in Charleston Tides.
History Behind the Story #3: Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
THE HISTORY: In the aftermath of the Civil War, as guns were being laid down and people were returning home, America had a lot of adjusting to do. We talked about missed opportunities for really instituting great change for newly emancipated men and women in a prior post. What happened in actuality was a period of intense instability and violence. Freedmen were keen to claim their rights, and many found this threatening for various reasons, which in turn led to violence. I will list some bullet points to give you an idea of just how huge the problem was.
- Thousands of newly emancipated men and women were murdered and assaulted. In 1865–1866, the Freedman’s Bureau in Texas alone recorded over a thousand murders, for example. This was a key factor in forcing the occupation of the formerly Confederate states, which lasted about a decade. In addition, racial violence was happening simultaneously all over the country, including in the North and in the territories.
- The Ku Klux Klan, White League, Knights of the White Camelia, and other groups began to form and spread quickly. There was no centralized organization, but local groups could be quite powerful and devastating. These organizations threatened freedmen and anyone who helped them. There were both isolated instances of violence and mass murders.
- Once “Radical Reconstruction” began, there was also political violence. Both Black and white Republican officials were targeted, intimidated, and assassinated. Several high-ranking politicians were killed. People were shot and lynched and had their homes burned. In addition, much of the violence was aimed at voter suppression. Election nights and days were huge times of violence, arson, and other threatening behavior because the organizations mentioned above wished to disenfranchise the newly freed populace (this means men, of course – women wouldn’t be given voting rights for decades).
- Economic intimidation also became a huge factor in preventing newly freed men and women from claiming their rights. The sharecropping system became a system of de facto slavery in which formerly enslaved people would be unable to leave due to loans held by landowners for their planting, which, because of the oppressive economic conditions, they would never be able to repay. In addition, simply “acting free” very often inspired whippings or shootings. Violence also often resulted if people tried to leave.
In Charleston Tides, we see most of this history come to a head at the end of the book (spoiler alert). John Thomas is almost assassinated because of a speech he gave in Congress highlighting the number of murders which had occurred. These kinds of assassinations or attempts were all too common and documented against Republican politicians. In addition, Shannon receives a warning from the Ku Klux Klan at her home in Massachusetts. There were many such reported incidents of insurgent activity against government officials who were Black or who were seen as supporting freedmen’s equality.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: I am going to block quote a few stories which were already told quite succinctly by one of my sources, which is cited below the stories. These involve officials who were attacked for their political beliefs.
“In Georgia on October 29, 1869, Klansmen attacked and brutally whipped 52-year-old Abram Colby, a formerly enslaved Black man who had been elected to Congress by enfranchised freedmen. Shortly before the attack, a group of Klansmen comprised of white doctors and lawyers tried to bribe Mr. Colby to change parties or resign from office. When he refused, the men brutally attacked him.”
“In August 1870, a Black legislator named Richard Burke was attempting to organize a meeting of African Americans in Sumter County, Alabama, when he was shot and killed near his home. Mr. Burke was accused of encouraging armed Black people to stage a protest in Livingston, Alabama, but the Southern Republican newspaper reported that the charges against Mr. Burke were most likely made up as an excuse to kill him for his political leadership.”
“In 1870, Guilford Coleman, a Black delegate to the Alabama state convention, was abducted from his home and killed the week he returned from nominating a Reconstruction governor in Demopolis. Investigation into Mr. Coleman’s murder was minimal but reports indicated he was beaten and dumped into a well solely for his political involvement. Reports warned that pro-Reconstruction politicians “dare not canvass the district, lest they lose their lives.”
Source: “Reconstruction in America,” Equal Justice Initiative Website, Documenting Reconstruction Violence -EJI Reports.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Reconstruction Era is known as one of the darkest times in American history. There were many actions taken that set precedents for generations to come. Many have speculated that if Lincoln had lived things would be different. What do you think? Did President Johnson’s handling of early Reconstruction constitute the most important series of actions during this time period?
PHOTOGRAPH: I wanted to introduce you, if you are not already acquainted, to Hiram Revels from Mississippi, who was the first Senator elected of African and Native American ancestry. He was born free in North Carolina in 1827 and became a preacher in the South before being elected in 1870 to finish the term of one of Mississippi’s U.S. senators. Thankfully, Mr. Revels was not a victim of violence during his tenure, and I wanted to include his story to highlight the strides that he made.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com
These posts which cover violence are always very difficult to write and read. If you are interested in learning more, there are so many resources out there which cover Reconstruction history quite well, and I am happy to recommend some. Stop by next time for a special guest post, which also happens to be the final History Behind the Story Post for the Torn Asunder Series.
Chernow, Ron, Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
“Reconstruction in America,” Equal Justice Initiative Website, Documenting Reconstruction Violence -EJI Reports.
“Southern Violence During Reconstruction,” Southern Violence During Reconstruction | American Experience | Official Site | PBS.
 As noted in the Violence Against Women article from Northern Fire, the number of reported crimes was nowhere near the number actually happening due to various reporting and legal constraints.