Summary Objective 20

Students will examine the ways that white Southerners attempted to define freedom for freed African Americans. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 5, 8 & 10


What else should my students know?

20.A White Southerners largely wanted to return to the pre-war plantation economy. Sharecropping and tenant farming, which offered some independence to formerly enslaved people, emerged as the dominant labor forms in the post-war South. Unfair labor contracts between farmers and landowners left sharecroppers and tenant farmers in an endless cycle of debt and poverty.

20.B The Ku Klux Klan emerged as a terrorist organization committed to violent repercussions for African Americans or their white allies who sought education, political power or economic success for the black population.

20.C Black Codes were sets of laws passed by former Confederates who regained power under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction. These laws codified certain rights, such as owning property or legally marrying, but they also guaranteed harsher punishments for people of color accused of the same crimes as white people.


How can I teach this?

  • To understand sharecropping and tenant farming, examine a sharecropper contract. These documents are widely available online, or K–12 educators can create a school account for free access through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American history.
  • Letters archived by The Freedmen and Southern Society Project provide contemporary protests of racial violence and unfair laws.
    • In a January 25, 1866, letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau, M. Howard, a freedman in Mississippi, protests labor contracts and Black Codes.
    • In a December 16, 1865, letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau, black soldier Calvin Holly writes to protest the violence directed at formerly enslaved people in Mississippi.
  • The Colfax Massacre is an understudied act of violence that occurred after a contested Louisiana gubernatorial election in 1873. One hundred and fifty black men were murdered by Southern Democrats who saw them as a threat to Democratic power. Several of the perpetrators of the massacre were prosecuted under the Enforcement Act (Civil Rights Act of 1870). This law was passed to protect the rights of African Americans, who were regularly threatened by violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Colfax convictions were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) that the protections of the 14th Amendment protected people only from the actions of state governments—not from the actions of individuals. This meant that the federal government could not use the Enforcement Act to target terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. A 2016 Smithsonian Magazine article explains Colfax and its consequences. 

  • Students might examine documents that threatened African American rights. A broadside, published by a “Committee” (likely the name for a local band of white vigilantes) and seized by the Freedmen’s Bureau in Tennessee, outlined rules for formerly enslaved people and promised penalties for any infractions. 
  • Key examples of Black Code legislation included laws that exploited or regulated the labor of black bodies. Vagrancy laws (particularly in Mississippi and South Carolina) allowed magistrates to arrest any black man who appeared unemployed and hire him out to a white planter. Apprenticeship laws meant that if courts ruled that parents were unable to adequately care for children under 18, those children could be apprenticed out as labor, with preference given to former enslavers. Licensure laws required African Americans to get a special license to do anything other than farm.



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Learning for Justice in the South

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