By Elise A. Guyette Originally published at https://rokeby.org/blog/. From 1793 to 1961, Rokeby was home to four generations of Robinsons — a remarkable family of Quakers, farmers, abolitionists, artists, and authors. Today, the Robinson family’s home is a National Historic Landmark, designated for its exceptional Underground Railroad history. Rokeby is among the best-documented Underground Railroad sites in the county, one the National Park Service has described as “unrivaled among known sites for its historical integrity and the poignancy of the stories it tells.”
Part II – 1868-1890
“Black progress is always met with a violent backlash.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Author and Journalist
In Part I, we recalled the heightened hopes of progress for Black equality and backlashes against it in the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. This installment continues with those patterns in the later half of 19th century.
Low Point: Presidential Reconstruction
Rowland E. (1833-1900) and Ann Stevens Robinson (1841-1920) were active artists and writers during the Reconstruction era. They were not advocates for social justice and equality like their forebears but were active in literature and artist circles. As a young man Rowland E. wrote disparagingly of people of color and immigrants, who began to flow into the country after the war and, later in life, characters in his Danvis tales exhibited racism, sexism and xenophobia. They made no public statements about advancing rights for newly freed men and women. As in many families, the children voiced different views from their parents. Just how different Rowland’s views were from his parent’s is a topic currently under study.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became president. As soon as the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were ratified Johnson declared that Reconstruction was over. A white supremacist from Tennessee, Johnson had approved when the Confederate states wrote new constitutions that kept Blacks in neo-slavery. Their high hopes for equality were once again dashed as Johnson restored ex-Confederate’s citizenship by executive order while Congress was in recess. Johnson restored their former lands to them (lands that were then owned and worked by freed people), welcomed them back to Washington, D.C. and ensured that freed people were by no means really free to exercise their rights.
High Expectations: Congressional Reconstruction
However, after Congress returned to Washington, Republicans began an era of Congressional Reconstruction. Congress mandated that the southern states rewrite their post-war constitutions to include civil and human rights for all. Loudon Langley from Hinesburgh, who had moved to Beaufort, SC with his family after the war, was a delegate to the 1868 SC Constitutional Convention. This biracial convention wrote the most progressive document of the era.[i] The state began breaking up the old plantation system and providing land to those who had labored on it for nothing while building up the wealth of privileged Whites.
The new biracial Reconstruction governments instituted taxes in order to rebuild the South and actually pay everyone for his/her work. The tasks were enormous, especially in the face of colossal resistance from ex-Confederates. Because taxes would benefit freedmen, they fought against them at every turn, as so often happens today for similar reasons. However, throughout the South, the biracial governments made amazing headway, providing for healthcare, housing, and education for all people. They rebuilt infrastructure destroyed by war and alleviated hunger. They created legal codes, dealt with issues of discrimination and justice and created biracial courts. They cleaned up the electoral processes, and the freed people were citizens for the first time in their lives. They finally had a country and a flag of which they were proud.
They did all of this while trying to stay alive as terrorists groups such as the KKK, the Knights of the White Camellia, and Red Shirts fought their every move. But people of color had the power to thwart them, and the federal government had the will to protect newly won rights. There were Black US Congressmen, school board commissioners, sheriffs, merchants, auditors, lawyers, teachers, and the like. Loudon Langley, originally from Hinesburg, was the first superintendent of schools in Beaufort County and was appointed auditor for the town of Beaufort, SC. Blacks were taking full advantage of the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments.
Finally, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1870, also known as the Enforcement Act or the First Ku Klux Klan Act. It mandated enforcing the terms of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Terrorists were arrested and imprisoned. The federal government stood steadfast in its support of Black rights, and terror organizations were dwindling. The 1862 Morrill Act funded land grant colleges throughout the country, and Black men and women attended them in the South.
Progress had begun. Optimism grew. There was great hope that Blacks would finally be treated as free and equal. What happened to that promise of a better life?
Low Point: Reconstruction Ends and New Oppressions Appear
W. E. B. De Bois wrote, “If there was one thing that (ex-Confederates) feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”[ii] It undermined the idea of white supremacy, so they needed to end it one way or another.
White supremacists assassinated Black office holders. They lynched Black men who voted and sometimes their wives and children to instill the greatest amount of terror. They murdered, raped, and tortured many people who were fighting for equal rights. Stories like this one from Frances Thompson in Memphis were ubiquitous:
Tuesday night, seven men, came to my house. One of them hit me on the side of my face and, holding my throat, choked me. Lucy (16) tried to get out of the window when one of them knocked her down. They drew their pistols and said they would shoot us and fire the house if we did not let them have their way with us. All seven of them violated us.[iii]
By the 1876 presidential election, the federal government was wearying of this second fight against the Confederacy, although they still had troops in Louisiana and South Carolina to protect the biracial legislatures that still existed there. Industrialists in the North were tired of the animosity between North and South since they needed the South’s cotton for their mills. Vermont was no exception, as mills in the state vied for cotton. North and South finally shook hands over the bloody divide, and the end was near once again for hopes of Black equality.
Before the final election of Reconstruction, an ex-Confederate general in SC, Harrison Butler, claimed that there had to be a certain number of leading Black men killed. If they found out after the leading men were killed that they couldn’t carry the state, they were going to kill enough so that they could carry the majority.[iv] The 1876 election was a brutal one, but by voting in the face of grave dangers, loyal Blacks ensured a victory for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as US President. Their reward: Hayes withdrew all remaining federal troops from the South and left the states to “local control.” The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which forbid discrimination in public spaces, was to be enforced by ex-confederate traitors who had no interest in protecting the rights of people of color. In 1883, the US Supreme Court even declared the act unconstitutional.[v] After eight years of biracial governments that went a long way to rebuild the South and ensure equality, rights for people of color were doomed yet again.
With no interference from the US government, Southern states proceeded to build a barbarous system of neo-slavery. Not only did people of color lose their jobs and political positions, but Blacks were also barred from an education at institutions that previously had accepted them. They were forced to sign work contracts for White planters on terms enormously advantageous to the Whites. If Black men and women refused to sign contracts, they were arrested. Sharecroppers were cheated left and right. If they complained, they were tortured, raped, and lynched. Blacks were also arrested for walking near RR tracks, for not getting off the sidewalks quickly enough for Whites, for resisting rape. If they complained, they were tortured, raped, and lynched. Those arrested were then legally re-enslaved, because of 5 words in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for crime.” Industrialists leased prisoners to slave in their companies and on their farms. Neo-slavery and the prison-industrial complex were in full swing in the South.[vi] Once again Black people were put to work building wealth for elite Whites.
New stereotypes were cemented in White brains. So many Black people were imprisoned that White people came to believe they were naturally criminal. Any resistance, and Blacks were defined as “rioters” who needed to be stopped. Peaceful demonstrations by people of color resulted in torture, rape, and lynching by white supremacists. Any movement toward wealth and equality enraged many Whites, and was met with angry mobs murdering thousands across the South and destroying successful Black towns (e.g. Colfax, LA; Tulsa, OK; Rosewood, FL). This ensured that Blacks could not pass on wealth to future generations. Few White people died in these actions, but 10,000 to 20,000 men, women and children of color died
in at the hands of enraged Whites. The bones of these people are still being found today in southern states.
Ida B. Wells summed up the era this way:
“It was a long, gory campaign; the blood chills and the heart almost loses faith in Christianity when one thinks of … the countless massacres of defenseless Negroes, whose only crime was the attempt to exercise their right to vote. Scourged from his home; hunted through the swamps; hung by midnight raiders, and openly murdered in the light of day, the Negro clung to his right of franchise with a heroism, which would have wrung admiration from the heart of savages. He believed that in the small white ballot there was a subtle something that stood for manhood (and) citizenship, and thousands of brave black men went to their graves, exemplifying the one by dying for the other.”[vii]
Reconstruction was not a failure of Black leadership. It was a failure of all branches of our federal government to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to our Constitution. According to historian Randolph Roth, the United States emerged from Reconstruction with a much higher homicide rate than other western nations. Racial violence was the overwhelming factor in this dramatic increase in the rate of death, and the high rate of American violence has persisted to the present day.[viii]
The mindset of Blacks as criminals is still with us as students of color are disproportionately suspended from school, Black drivers are stopped in disproportionately high numbers by police, and Black men and women are disproportionately represented in our prisons. Many are guilty of nothing other than being Black with few resources to fight the system.
A Bright Spot: Education
In 1878, one year after the end of Reconstruction and one year before he died, Rowland T. Robinson wrote to his friend William Lloyd Garrison in Boston to ask for advice on how best to apply a philanthropic bequest of a friend, “with reference to our colored population, especially the freedmen at the South.” Garrison replied, “Unquestionably, next to the protection of their citizenship, what they most stand in need of is education, in all its branches; and this is naturally to be sought through those institutions which have been organized expressly for that object.”[ix]
In 1890, Senator Justin Morrill from Vermont, who had authored the first Morrill Act in 1862 authorizing land-grant colleges to teach agricultural and mechanic arts, pushed through a second Morrill Act. It stated that any land-grant institution that discriminated against Blacks would not receive federal monies. As a result, southern states built separate colleges for Blacks, which (added to Black colleges already established) became the system of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) still functioning today.[x] The 1890 schools were all co-ed from the beginning, expanding democracy among people of color.[xi]
[i] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (NY: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 329.
[ii] W.E.B. DuBois. Black Reconstruction in America (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1935; reprinted 2013) p. 381.
[iii] Dorothy Sterling, Ed. The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 93.
[iv] Testimony as to the denial of elective franchise in South Carolina at the elections of 1876, Senate Miscellaneous Document, 44th Congress, 2nd Session, No. 48, p. 45. This was no idle threat. In July of 1876 the infamous Hamburg Massacre of Black men occurred.
[v] This is similar to the declaration of the US Supreme Court in 2013 that invalidated the 1965 Voting Rights. This left southern states to take over local control of voting mechanisms. The result has been machinations, such as closing polling stations in majority Black districts, calling for picture IDs, and other ploys to keep Blacks from voting. In essence, it has caused the disenfranchisement of many Blacks.
[vi] See Douglas Blackmon. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
[vii] Ida B. Wells-Barnet (1895). A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alledged Causes of Lynching in the United States. In Chapter One: “The Case Stated”. Online: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14977/14977-h/14977-h.htm
[viii] See Randolph Roth. American Homicide. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.
[ix] Letter to Rowland T. Robinson from Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Boston, July 11, 1878.
[x] Those already established were Berea College (est. 1855), Fiske University (est. 1866) and Hampton University (est. 1868). These were private co-ed universities.
[xi] Ironically, the last group welcomed into the land-grant system was Tribal Colleges for Native Americans. It was their stolen lands that were transferred to the states to fund the colleges in the first place. They had paid with their lives and their lands but reaped no benefits until 1994.