Hidden Connections: Back Toward Slavery

Slave emancipation in the United States

Writing in 1935, WEB Du Bois asserted that the overthrow of Reconstruction brought an end to the “finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen.” The principal victims of that turn of events were the former slaves and their descendants, who in the years to follow would experience a sharp and often brutal deterioration in their conditions. But as Du Bois implied, the defeat of Reconstruction dealt a blow to American democracy generally. Within a few short years most black Southerners were deprived of the franchise, and would not recover it until the second half of the next century. The modest but hard-fought gains that the ‘bottom rail’ of Southern society had managed to win while the Republican regimes survived slipped through their fingers, tipping the balance of power decisively in favour of the region’s white elites. 

In a new era of rapid industrial expansion the federal government in Washington retreated from the interventionist role it had assumed after the war, acquiescing to the laissez-faire approach to racial and economic inequality favoured by the nations’ leading employers. The Republican Party, for most African Americans still the party of emancipation, retreated from its role as defender of black civil rights. Federal troops were withdrawn from the South and redeployed to the West, where they eventually defeated the last great attempt by the Plains Indians to hold off white encroachment; to the Northeast, where they were dispatched to suppress a series of bitter strikes approaching insurrectionary levels; and beyond the nation’s continental borders, where the U. S. began to translate its growing industrial might into imperial power. 

Despite the adversities they now confronted, black Southerners continued to take advantage of whatever openings existed to shape society in their interests. When, in the mid-1880s, an agrarianbased third-party movement, the Populists, began to take root across the South, African Americans were prominent in pushing it forward. In places like Birmingham and New Orleans, Galveston, Jacksonville and Atlanta, black working men and women played an important role in late-nineteenth century labour organizing. But in the face of mounting racial hostility and with the political sphere increasingly closed off to them, the focus of post-Reconstruction politics turned to ‘building community’ within the confines of segregation,
through racial ‘uplift’ and self-help. When the industrial demand brought on by the First World War presented black Southerners, for the first time, with an alternative to low-paid plantation labour, they deserted the region in their millions, heading northward. The demand for equality so powerfully articulated in the years after emancipation would be taken up by a new generation, and remains an important part of the unfinished business of American democracy.

Convict Labor: Slavery by Another Name

Convict Labor

U.S Library of Congress

Racial Violence: an East Texas Lynching, ca. 1900

Convict Labor

Courtesy of Forest History Collection, Sam Houston State University

The Fruits of Redemption in South Carolina

The Fruits of Redemption in South Carolina

New York Times, 10 September 1877

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