Reconstruction: African American Successes

Lesson Content

Inquire: Facilitating the Transition from Slavery to Free People


Throughout Reconstruction, there was tension between the Radical Republicans, with their Reconstruction agenda, and the president. Even after Democrat President Andrew Johnson retired from public life in 1868 and Republican war hero General Ulysses S. Grant was elected, tension was not completely eliminated. Grant did not support the Radical Republicans’ agenda, and the burning desire to punish the South was becoming mollified in the minds of many Americans by the ongoing expenses involved in Reconstruction.

Nevertheless, the Freedmen’s Bureau, one Reconstruction asset, was instrumental in helping numerous African Americans navigate their way into a life of freedom. Schools were built, communities were established, and African Americans began to move into elected positions throughout the South.

The passage of the 15th Amendment also gave African American men the right to vote, but it was resented by many women and members of the women’s suffrage movement who were unhappy with a Congress that would take the necessary steps to allow African American men the right to vote, but was unwilling to give women the same right.

These Reconstruction efforts greatly impacted the America of today, though they represented the beginning of the end for the Reconstruction era.


Big Question

What success did freed African Americans have in their transition from slavery to freedom?

Read: African American Political Achievements


In the late 1860s, black voter registration and the ratification of the 15th Amendment finally brought about what Lincoln had characterized as “a new birth of freedom.” Union Leagues — the fraternal groups founded in the North that promoted loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party during the Civil War — expanded into the South after the war and were transformed into political clubs that served both political and civic functions. As centers of Southern black communities, the leagues became vehicles for the dissemination of information, acted as mediators between members of the black community and the white establishment, and engaged in other practical functions like helping to build schools and churches for the communities they served. As extensions of the Republican Party, these leagues worked to enroll newly enfranchised black voters, campaign for candidates, and generally help the party win elections.

African American Major Players

DecorativeThe political activities of the leagues launched a great many African Americans and former slaves into politics throughout the South. For the first time, African Americans began to hold political office, and several were elected to the U.S. Congress. In the 1870s, 15 members of the House of Representatives and two senators were African Americans. These two senators, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, were both from Mississippi, the home state of former U.S. senator and later Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Hiram Revels was a freeborn man from North Carolina who rose to prominence as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and later as a Mississippi state senator in 1869. The following year, he was elected by the state legislature to fill one of Mississippi’s two U.S. Senate seats, which had been vacant since the war. His arrival in Washington D.C. drew intense interest as the New York Times noted when, “the colored Senator from Mississippi, was sworn in and admitted to his seat this afternoon… there was not an inch of standing or sitting room in the galleries, so densely were they packed… When the vice president uttered the words, ‘The Senator elect will now advance and take the oath,’ a pin might have been heard drop.”

Though the fact of their presence was dramatic and important, the few African American representatives and senators who served in Congress during Reconstruction represented only a tiny fraction of the many hundreds, possibly thousands, of African Americans who served in a great number of capacities at the local and state levels. The South was full of freed slaves and freeborn African Americans serving as school board commissioners, county commissioners, clerks of court, board of education and city council members, justices of the peace, constables, coroners, magistrates, sheriffs, auditors, and registrars during the early 1870s. This wave of local African American political activity contributed to, and was accompanied by, a new concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged sections of society in the South. The Southern Republican leadership banned the hated Black Codes, undid the work of white supremacists, and labored to reduce obstacles confronting freed people.

Reconstruction governments invested in infrastructure, paying special attention to the rehabilitation of the Southern railroads. They set up public education systems that enrolled both white and black students. They both established and increased funding to hospitals, orphanages, and asylums for the mentally ill. In some states, the state and local governments provided the poorest members of society with basic necessities like firewood and bread. To pay for these new services and subsidies, the government levied taxes on land and property. This land tax compounded the existing economic problems of white landowners who were often cash-poor and contributed to the feeling that they were facing another Northern attack on their way of life.

DecorativeWhite Southerners reacted with outrage to the changes imposed upon them. The sight of once-enslaved African Americans serving in positions of authority as sheriffs, congressmen, and city council members caused great resentment and undermined the traditional social and economic foundations of the South. Indignant Southerners referred to this period of reform as a period of “negro misrule.” They complained of corruption on the part of vengeful freed slaves and greedy Northerners looking to fill their pockets with the South’s riches. Unfortunately, there were several examples of corruption they could point to, such as legislators using state revenues to buy themselves luxury items or to give themselves inflated salaries. Such examples, however, were relatively few and largely comparable to 19th-century corruption across the country. Yet these powerful stories, combined with deep-seated racial animosity in the South, led to Democratic campaigns to “redeem” state governments.

Democrats in the South leveraged the economic powers of white landowners and wielded white vigilante violence to take back state political power from the Republicans. By the time President Grant’s attentions were being directed away from the South and toward the Indian Wars in the West in 1876, power in the South had largely been returned to whites, and Reconstruction had effectively been abandoned. By the end of 1876, only South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida had Republican governments.

The sense that the South had unfairly fallen prey to vengeance from African Americans, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, persisted for many decades. So powerful and pervasive was this narrative that by the time D. W. Griffith released his 1915 motion picture, The Birth of a Nation, white Americans around the country were primed to accept the fallacy that white Southerners were the frequent victims of violence at the hands of African Americans, when in reality, the opposite was true.

DecorativeWhite southerners orchestrated a successful counterrevolution against Reconstruction policies in the South, beginning in the 1860s. Those who worked to change and modernize the South typically received threats of violence, and African American Republican officials in the South were frequently terrorized, assaulted, and even murdered with impunity by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. When not ignoring the 14th and 15th Amendments altogether, white leaders often used fraudulent methods at the polls to get the results they wanted. As Reconstruction came to a close, these methods came to define Southern life for African Americans for nearly a century afterward.

Reflect: Freedmen’s Bureau or Union Leagues?


The Watch section described the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau in helping African Americans assimilate into a life of freedom. The Read section set out the work done by the Union Leagues in helping African Americans exercise their political rights and assert their privileges.

As you study these two organizations, which one do you think was more important to the African American community during Reconstruction?

Expand: Women’s Suffrage


While the 15th Amendment may have been greeted with applause by many, some leading women’s rights activists saw it as a major disappointment. That the 15th Amendment had not granted women’s suffrage was even more dispiriting given that many women’s rights activists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had played large roles in the Abolitionist Movement leading up to the Civil War.

Women in the AERA

The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed in 1866 with the expressed purpose of securing “equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” Two years later, with the adoption of the 14th Amendment and its specification of liberties extended to “male citizens,” it seemed as though the progress made in support of civil rights was not only passing women by, but purposely codifying their exclusion. As Congress debated the language of the 15th Amendment, some held out hope that it would finally extend the franchise to women. Those hopes were dashed when Congress adopted the final language.

These frustrated hopes led to the effective split of a civil rights movement that had once been united in support of both African Americans and women. Seeing this split occur, Frederick Douglass, a once ardent supporter of women’s rights, insisted that although his support for women’s right to vote was sincere, his desire to gain suffrage for African Americans was “of the most urgent necessity.” “The government of this country loves women,” he argued. “They are the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of our rulers; but the negro is loathed… The negro needs suffrage to protect his life and property, and to ensure him respect and education.”

Frederick Douglass as a younger man

These appeals were largely accepted by women’s rights leaders and AERA members like Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell, who believed that more time was needed to bring about female suffrage. Others, however, demanded immediate action. Among those who pressed forward despite the setback were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The two leaders felt greatly aggrieved that other abolitionists with whom they had worked closely for years did not demand that women be included in the language of the Amendments. Stanton argued that the women’s vote would be necessary to counter the influence of uneducated freedmen in the South and the waves of poor European immigrants arriving in the East.

In 1869, Stanton and Anthony helped organize the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), an organization dedicated to ensuring that women gained the right to vote. Some women, including Virginia Minor, a member of the NWSA, took action by trying to register to vote in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1872. When election officials turned her away, Minor brought the issue to the Missouri state courts, arguing that the 14th Amendment ensured that she was a citizen with the right to vote. This legal effort to bring about women’s suffrage eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which declared in 1874 that “the constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one,” effectively dismissing Minor’s claim.

DecorativeDespite the 15th Amendment’s failure to guarantee female suffrage, women did gain the right to vote in some Western territories, with the Wyoming Territory leading the way in 1869. Extending the right to vote in Western territories provided an incentive for white women to emigrate to the West, where they were previously scarce.

The Women’s Suffrage movement persevered, and there were victories in other Western territories and states — Utah Territory in 1870, Washington Territory in 1883, Idaho in 1896, and California in 1911. Full, nation-wide suffrage, however, would not occur until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 — 50 years after the passage of the 15th Amendment.

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Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Reconstruction and 1876: Crash Course US History #22

A Crash Course video describing Reconstruction following the Civil War

American Equal Rights Association

A ThoughtCo article expanding on the AERA and the split within the Civil Rights Movement following the 14th Amendment’s ratification

Reconstruction Era: 1865 – 1877

A list of resources, compiled by Howard University, allowing you to continue exploring the impact of Reconstruction

African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau

An article and list of resources from the National Archives expanding on the role of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its impact on the U.S.

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • American Equal Rights Association (AERA)
    organization formed in 1866 with the expressed purpose of securing “equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex”
  • Freedmen's Bureau
    a federal agency set up in 1865 to assist freed slaves in obtaining relief, land, jobs, fair treatment, and education
  • Indian Wars
    a number of various armed conflicts fought by the United States government against the native peoples of North America
  • National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA)
    organization created in response to a split in the American Equal Rights Association over whether the women's movement should support the 15th Amendment
  • Union Leagues
    fraternal groups founded in the North that promoted loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party during the Civil War

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library.  CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: U.S. History: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

Decorative15th Amendment, or the Darkey’s millennium – 40 acres of land and a muleUnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeThe South – a tour of its battlefields and ruined cities…Trowbridge, J. T.Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBirthofaNationVariousWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeFrederick Douglass as a younger manJ.C. ButtreWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeNational Woman Suffrage AssociationGeorge Grantham Bain CollectionWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeFreedmens Bureau 1866UnknownWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain