The era in U.S. history known as Reconstruction presented many new opportunities to African Americans, especially in the South. For the first time, freedmen were free to pursue economic independence, education, religion and politics. These pursuits are embodied in the accomplishments of four men: Alonzo Herndon, Booker T. Washington, Jonathan Gibbs and Hiram Revels.
Beginning in 1865, the historical era known as Reconstruction offered a window of opportunity for African Americans, especially in the South. For the first time ever, freedmen could own land and businesses, go to school, move and assemble freely and advocate for themselves, vote and hold political office. In order to discuss just some of the ways life changed during Reconstruction, we're going to look at the success stories of four different men. Meet Alonzo Herndon, Booker T. Washington, Jonathan Gibbs and Hiram Revels.
Photos of Herndon, Washington, Gibbs, and Revels
Alonzo Herndon was born a slave on a Georgia plantation. Like most freedmen who remained in the South, his family became sharecroppers after the war. Although they were technically free, their contracts were (more often than not) unfair and kept them legally obligated to circumstances very similar to slavery, restricting their movements and perpetuating a cycle of poverty and dependence. Few freedmen felt they had any choice: they were poor, without any skills beyond a plantation, illiterate and unaware of opportunities beyond their hometown. But Alonzo Herndon was different.
Herndon had maybe one year of education, but he was determined to make a better life for himself. He peddled peanuts and other items to earn a little extra money and left the plantation with $11 in his pocket. The simple act of leaving town to go wherever he wished represented a new freedom. Herndon learned the barbering trade, and soon opened a barber shop, and then another, and then another. His elegant shop in Atlanta became known as one of the best in the South, serving the city's most elite white customers. As his business thrived, Herndon used his profits to buy real estate in Georgia and Florida. Eventually, Herndon founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which is still going strong today.
Herndon became the first black millionaire in Atlanta and extended his role as an economic leader to support the type of institutions that had helped him and others to become successful, such as black churches, mutual aid societies, universities, orphanages and the YMCA. Despite the challenges they faced, many African Americans, like Herndon, began saving money, working to improve their own lives and their neighbors' and taking advantage of the opportunities in front of them.
Sharecroppers endured conditions similar to slavery
Booker T. Washington
Many former slaves attended elementary and high schools opened by the Freedmen's Bureau to acquire basic skills, but those who wanted to pursue a higher education were still excluded from most colleges. In response, African Americans opened their own colleges, hoping that promising young black men could earn a place in mainstream America. One such leader was Booker T. Washington.
Just like Alonzo Herndon, Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a Southern plantation in the mid-1850s. After emancipation, he worked in the salt mines of West Virginia, and his mother got him a book so he could learn to read. He left home when he was 16 to work his way through the countryside to Hampton Roads, Virginia. He worked and studied to become a licensed teacher, then returned home to his small town. But after giving an address at his university's graduation ceremony, he was offered a job teaching there. Then, at the age of 25, he became the founding director of the Tuskegee Institute, which originally trained black teachers but soon expanded under Washington to include trades and agriculture.
Washington's philosophy that young African Americans should seek equality slowly by pursuing skills and trades (rather than a classical education) drew criticism from other black leaders. But his model of 'industry, thrift, intelligence and property' was successful, and Booker T. Washington became one of the most prominent leaders in the black community of his day. Many of Washington's students took his advice and returned to their hometowns to open schools and training centers, helping to educate and lift their neighbors out of desperate poverty. Today, Tuskegee University is just one of more than 100 historically black colleges and universities established in this time frame. And though many other black leaders at the time thought Booker T. Washington was something of a sell-out - unwilling to challenge white supremacist attitudes - he secretly funded several lawsuits to challenge racial segregation.
Photo of a classroom at the Tuskegee Institute
Unlike Herndon and Washington, Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs was born free in Philadelphia. He was well-educated, having graduated from Dartmouth College before studying theology at Princeton University. Before the Civil War even began, Gibbs was already a community leader as a pastor, a vocal abolitionist and an activist in the Northern anti-segregation movement. As the Civil War drew to a close, Gibbs was invited south by the American Home Missionary Society, becoming what many people would call back then a 'carpetbagger.' Like many other missionaries, he traveled the South, tending to the educational and spiritual needs of freedmen and spreading the influence of Christian denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).
These churches existed well before the Civil War, but during Reconstruction, they gained tens of thousands of members and became the first Southern institution fully controlled by African-Americans. For the first time, they could assemble without having white chaperones present. Churches became much more than houses of worship; they supported education, hosted social gatherings, fostered activism, promoted discussion of political issues and endorsed civic causes. Additionally, the church promoted and supported the welfare of community members, providing services to help freedmen improve their lives and integrate into free society.
It should come as no surprise that many black leaders got their start in churches; Jonathan Gibbs is a perfect example. Originally invited as a Reconstruction missionary for a few months, Gibbs traveled the South for three years before finally settling in Florida and establishing a private school. Within another year, he was chosen as a delegate to Florida's Constitutional Convention. Gibbs' central concern was schools, knowing that education was essential to improving living standards and opportunities for African Americans. At the time, most black schools were either run by the Freedman's Bureau or missionaries, like himself. But Gibbs correctly predicted that these institutions would not be permanent, and he argued successfully for the establishment of a public school system in Florida.
In 1868, Gibbs was offered the powerful job as Florida's secretary of state, in which he protected black voting rights and investigated claims of violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Later, he continued his public life as the state superintendent of Florida's public schools and won election as a councilman in the city of Tallahassee.
With the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing voting rights for African American men, black leaders could now have a realistic chance of running for and winning political office. Hundreds of them, like Hiram Revels, won seats at every level of government.
Hiram Revels was born a free man in North Carolina. After a brief career as a barber, Revels went north to become a minister. After being ordained, he was sent to churches in many different states in both the North and South, finally settling in Mississippi in 1866. He started several schools before being elected to his city government, and then the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. Then, in 1870, Hiram Revels became the first black man ever selected to serve in the U.S. Senate. Although white Southern Democrats challenged his seat, his supporters won after two days of debate. Like nearly all black politicians at the time, Revels was a Republican, casting many votes for racial equality and against segregation. But he was not a radical, and endorsed positions aimed at restoring the nation amicably, such as amnesty for former Confederates.
Hiram Revels was an inspiration to many African Americans who were getting their first taste of politics. Though there were only two Reconstruction Senators and 15 Congressmen, there were hundreds of blacks who served as delegates to state constitutional conventions and were elected to state and local offices - even constituting a majority in Revels' state of Mississippi and in South Carolina. And political activism extended beyond public office, as large numbers of African Americans worked in public service jobs, volunteered on political campaigns, supported Union leagues, which encouraged voter education, advocacy and grass-roots activism, like sit-ins and strikes, and joined fraternal organizations that advanced both personal and civic goals. And, of course, they voted.
Revels resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate after a year to accept a position as the first president of what is now Alcorn State University, another of America's historically black colleges and universities. He served until retirement with two brief interruptions. Throughout his entire political and academic career, Revels remained active as an Episcopal minister.
Let's review. During Reconstruction, rights and opportunities expanded for African Americans. For the first time in the South, especially, they could vote and hold office, own businesses, organize and meet without whites present and get an education. Four black leaders became role models to others within their communities and serve as examples to us today. Alonzo Herndon demonstrated economic success. Booker T. Washington proved that former slaves could become educational leaders. Jonathan Gibbs was a Reconstruction carpetbagger who served first as a missionary and then as a non-elected government leader. Finally, Hiram Revels achieved success as an elected politician, serving as America's first black U.S. Senator.