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Life in the South After the Civil War

  • 0:05 Problems in the Post-War South
  • 1:46 Sharecropping and…
  • 5:29 Redeemers
  • 8:27 The KKK and Other…
  • 9:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Following the Civil War, the era of Reconstruction was a difficult time for Southerners. Their land was destroyed, their political institutions were overrun by outsiders, the economy was in transition and their society was in upheaval. It was in this climate that the Ku Klux Klan was born and the Redeemers sought to reestablish the Old South.

Problems in the Post-War South

The time: Spring 1865, at the end of the Civil War

The place: The American South

The problems: Destruction, hunger, lawlessness and violence

More than a million African Americans were refugees, homeless, separated from family during years of slavery, wondering what to do now. The white male population had been decimated by the war. The survivors straggled home, many of them wounded. But when they arrived home, they found a strange new world waiting for them.

Governments in many places ceased to exist. Southern infrastructure was almost totally destroyed. Cities were in shambles. Chimneys loomed in overgrown fields where homes once stood. Farm fields were destroyed. The familiar social order was gone. Former slaves were now free with the same rights as everyone else. Even the so-called 'favorite' house slaves - the ones their masters had thought loved them - were long gone. The federal government was imposing their concept of Reconstruction, troops still marched through the cities to enforce new laws, and Northern civilians streamed in, for better or worse.

You might say these former Confederates got what they deserved; after all, slavery is wrong. But at least for the short term, the morality of slavery was irrelevant. The immediate problem was that it was late spring, and the crops needed to get in the ground before it was too late. The people who knew how to work the fields were demanding wages, yet land owners had no money to pay them until the harvest came in. What could possibly be done?

Sharecropping

The new labor arrangements of tenant farming and sharecropping were born out of this necessity. Laborers who had everything they needed to farm (except the land) became tenant farmers. Essentially, they just rented the fields, with payment in cash either up front or at the harvest. Tenant farmers often had the freedom to plant whatever crops they wanted. But far more freedmen became sharecroppers. Sharecroppers rented tools and animals from the landowner, worked the land at their own expense and then agreed to pay the owner between half and two-thirds of the crop after the harvest. Sharecroppers usually had to plant specific crops required by the landowner.

Photo of sharecroppers tending the land
Sharecroppers Photograph

These arrangements did offer a solution to the farming crisis, but sharecropping, especially, became a way for wealthy whites to continue dominating society and keep blacks repressed well beyond the Civil War. Contracts, of course, favored the land owner. Sharecroppers generally lacked the resources to market their harvest independently and were often cheated during the sale. Then there were the plantation stores. Operated by the land owner, the stores conveniently sold everything farmers needed to run their households, like seed, clothing, medicine and food items they couldn't grow. The stores granted a credit account to buy supplies when they were needed and then pay the tab at harvest. But the price for this convenience was extremely high. Many sharecroppers found that their share of the crops at the harvest wasn't enough to pay their debts to the store - much less give them anything for the year ahead. Debtors were then legally obligated to stay on at the plantation, hoping that next year's crop would be better and allow them to settle the bill.

This system of labor lasted in some parts of the south for a century, involving a majority of landless black and white farmers in many parts of the South.

Convict Leasing

Though sharecropping reduced many freedmen back to circumstances very similar to slavery, there were laborers who worked without any wages at all, legally. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. It was a pretty big loophole.

For many years after the Civil War, Southern states routinely convicted poor African Americans and some whites of vagrancy or other crimes, and then sentenced them to prolonged periods of forced labor. Owners of businesses, like plantations, railroads and mines, then leased these convicts from the state for a low fee. It was a win-win situation for people at the top. Business owners had an inexpensive workforce that couldn't make labor demands. And convicts were actually cheaper than slaves, so incentive to treat them well was low. The struggling state governments had nearly no overhead expenses when the convicts were leased, and the prisoners generated an enormous income stream. How big? In Alabama, convict leasing constituted 73% of the state's revenue in 1898!

It may come as no surprise that criminal populations multiplied in several states by as much as ten times between 1865 and the turn of the century. Inmates were big business. What kind of crime might lead someone to be sentenced to convict labor? Being homeless or having a home that seemed too expensive (suggesting the homeowner is stealing), being unemployed, gambling, vagrancy and a host of other real and imagined offenses. Convict leasing existed in every former Confederate state, except Virginia, and lasted for almost 60 years.

Redeemers

Sharecropping and convict leasing were just two of the ways that Democrats began to 'redeem' the South. Redeemers were white Southerners who worked to reclaim the social and political control that they had exercised for more than a century. The problem wasn't just that Republicans were in charge. Black men were now their political equals. Northern carpetbaggers were actually taking public office, along with traitorous scalawags (that is, Southern Republicans). Not only were former Confederates resentful of this political takeover, they also disdained the Northern social attitudes that were influencing the younger generation.

U.S. presidents who believed in Confederate amnesty
Confederate Amnesty Presidents

The Redeemers wanted to undo these changes by any means necessary. Though Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and Grant had believed that amnesty for former Confederates would help heal the wounds of the Civil War, their plan backfired. As soon as Southern Democrats had their right to vote restored, redemption was swift. Starting with Tennessee in 1869, Redeemers controlled all but three Southern states within seven years. They also set about restoring what they believed was the proper social order. They passed Black Codes that limited the rights of African Americans. These laws varied by locality but commonly included restrictions against blacks working in certain businesses, living in certain parts of town, carrying guns and testifying against whites. The 15th amendment forbid restricting the right to vote based on race but left open other loopholes. So, Redeemers gradually disenfranchised African Americans with unfair requirements, like literacy tests that were in languages other than English. Since non-voters couldn't serve in elected office or serve on juries, disenfranchisement further reduced the political power and legal protection of African Americans.

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