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The Civil War, Reconstruction and the Transformation of African American Life in the 19th Century

The Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen’s Bureau / Drawn by A.R. Waud. Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-105555.

This year the nation commemorated the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The war was a period of great transformation in America, in Washington, D.C., and in the lives of African Americans. Those changes continued into the second half of the 19th century. Jason Steinhauer sat down with historian Kate Masur, a former Kluge Fellow at the Kluge Center and a recent returnee to the Center for this past year’s #ScholarFest, to discuss.


Hi, Kate. Thanks for joining me. Let’s jump right into it: your work examines the Civil War and Reconstruction era in Washington, D.C., and you’ve stated that this was a period of great transformation in Washington. Could you broadly identify some of those transformations?

There were two lasting transformations: the city’s growth and the abolition of slavery. Abolitionists had been trying for decades to persuade Congress to abolish slavery in D.C., but Congress – dominated by slaveholding interests – would not move. Thus when Congress finally passed an abolition act for the capital in April 1862, it was clear that changes of vast magnitude, for the city, the region, and the nation as a whole, were at hand. At the same time, the war brought thousands of new people into what had been a relatively small city. Many of them were transient and left when the war machine disbanded; overall, however, population growth continued, a real estate boom ensued, and Washington began to become the modern city we know today.

What were conditions like for African Americans in Washington at the start of the Civil War, and how had those changed by war’s end?

As the war began, not only was slavery legal in the District of Columbia, but racially discriminatory “black codes” impinged in the lives of free African Americans, forcing them to carry passes, stay inside at night, and pay unfair licensing fees work in certain businesses. The threat of sale into the interstate slave trade hung over all African Americans in the region, enslaved and free. By the end of the war, slavery had been outlawed not just in D.C. but nationwide, African American men had served with valor in the United States army and navy, and black organizations had come out into the open, playing visible roles in the city’s civic life. Schools for African Americans flourished under auspices of local educators, outside missionaries, and the Freedmen’s Bureau. And the population itself was transformed by the migration into the city of thousands of former slaves from the surrounding countryside. The migrants faced shortages of housing and employment, so this was also a difficult period for the many people who were buffeted by disruptive forces they could not control.

Was D.C. a catalyst for the shift in national attitude on Emancipation during the Civil War – or did D.C. follow the lead of others?

African Americans’ political mobilization in Civil War Era Washington was both sophisticated and effective. During the war, northern black leaders began to come to Washington, joining a black population that had been disproportionately free before the war and had fostered numerous strong organizations, including churches and private schools. People realized that in Washington they had the ear of members of Congress, especially those who emerged from the anti-slavery movement. African Americans attended congressional debates in growing numbers, starting during the war. Henry Highland Garnet, an activist and minister who had spent most of his time in New York, became pastor of the city’s prominent and prestigious 15th Street Presbyterian Church and, in February 1865, became the first African American to give an address in the chamber of the House of Representatives, when he delivered a speech in honor of the House’s recent passage of the 13th Amendment. George T. Downing, a caterer and civil rights activist from Rhode Island, managed the restaurant in the House of Representatives and used it as a platform for lobbying members of Congress. In short, Washington, D.C., became a national hub for black political life, and the impact was evident not just in the Capitol but on the streets of the city itself.

Kate Masur, a 2004 Kluge Fellow, speaks in the first round of "Lightning Conversations" as part of the Scholarfest celebration in honor of the John W. Kluge Center's 15th anniversary, June 11, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Kate Masur, a 2004 Kluge Fellow, speaks in the first round of “Lightning Conversations” as part of the Scholarfest celebration in honor of the John W. Kluge Center’s 15th anniversary, June 11, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The period following the war is known as Reconstruction Era, and as you and other historians have noted it is an era that remains controversial. What about it has remained so contentious?  

In the years following the Civil War, Americans had no choice but to grapple with questions about race, rights, and power that remain contentious to this day. The immediate problems were how to bring the former Confederate states back into the Union and how to secure the freedom of former slaves. But these very specific dilemmas were in fact subsets of much broader questions: What rights were all persons in the United States entitled to, and what government entity would guarantee those rights? Who is an American citizen and what are the rights and obligations of citizens? What is the relative power of the federal government in relation to state and local governments? It is difficult to talk about Reconstruction without invoking these rather fraught questions, but in my view that is precisely why we should talk about Reconstruction: because the period forces us to grapple with incredibly important issues that continue to resonate in the present.

It seems there were two parallel “Reconstructions”: political Reconstruction, centered on the remaking of political parties, the extension of black suffrage and revised legal systems, and a social Reconstruction that centered on shifts in labor, shifts in migration, and various social movements. How did these political and social changes intersect, and how did they progress separately?

That is a very big question! But it’s useful, in some ways, to think about those two different threads. People are perhaps most familiar with the political history of Reconstruction – the drama of an epic conflict between President Andrew Johnson and a Republican-dominated Congress; the enfranchisement of African American men; and the ratification of three new constitutional amendments that reshaped American jurisprudence in the 20th century. They’re less familiar with the equally remarkable changes that characterized the period’s social history, particularly in the South. In this period, the region’s most important form of labor – slavery – was summarily abolished. New forms of labor and kinds of compensation emerged; a democratic political mobilization of massive proportions took shape as black men became voters; southern cities grew and railroad networks developed; and African Americans increasingly migrated to cities and also to western places like Oklahoma and Kansas, searching for opportunities to farm their own land and escape white-led violence. Some of these changes were important precursors to better-known twentieth-century dynamics like the Great Migration and the impoverishment of the rural South.

You’ve written recently in The Atlantic that Reconstruction deserves to be commemorated, and you’re involved with the National Park Service in this effort. Yet Reconstruction was a process not a distinct event. How do we commemorate a process that spanned more than a decade?

The National Park Service has frequently undertaken National Historic Landmark Theme Studies whose goal is to describe a period or theme in American history and identify landmarks associated with it, so in that respect what we’re doing is nothing new. In fact, the Theme Study on Reconstruction defines the period as beginning with emancipation during the Civil War and lasting until the end of the 19th century – that is, from 1861 to about 1900. Commemorating the process of Reconstruction means talking about its various facets, including landmark federal legislation and constitutional amendments, the extraordinary outpouring of African American institution-building that occurred in the wake of slavery, and also the horrific violence white southerners often used to stymie the period’s most democratic goals. It’s a lot to take on, but we have a terrific team working on it.

Are we still in the Reconstruction Era, given the racial tensions we grapple with in contemporary America?

Historians like to divide time into chunks, and I think there is merit to the argument that Reconstruction was a discrete period of time that ended at some point in the late nineteenth century. That said, the “racial tensions” you mention need to be understood as endemic to life in a nation that permitted and supported race-based slavery for more than two centuries. To the extent that we continue to grapple with the question of how to live in the aftermath of slavery – to live in a nation whose features include individual racism and structural racism, as well as inequalities of wealth generated not just by slavery but also by the decades of racial discrimination that followed it – absolutely, we are living in an extended era of post-slavery “reconstruction.”

Kate Masur was a Kluge Fellow in 2004 and is currently an Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University. Parts of her book “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” were researched at the Kluge Center.

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One Comment

  1. Misipati Wene-Sataraka
    November 20, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    I found this information very interesting it really helped me complete my project on this topic. I look foward to reading more.

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