Reconstruction, so much better and so much worse than I knew.

To honor Black History Month:  I have now read two books about reconstruction (A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner, and The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, by Michael A. Ross), not enough to make me a scholar, but they have made me aware of how much I did not know.

First surprise for me was how really wonderful Reconstruction almost was. It’s heartbreaking to see how much progress was being made against great obstacles, and then for that progress to be squashed.

In the first years after the Civil War, black communities were filled with energy and determination. Foner writes that in 1860 over 90% of the South’s adult black population was illiterate, but they knew the importance of literacy. Some new black communities taxed themselves, poor as they were, to build schoolhouses and pay teachers. Some charged tuition but awarded scholarships to the poorest children. If they couldn’t build a schoolhouse, they held classes in abandoned warehouses, billiards rooms, even in former slave markets. (Foner, p.43)

Black communities “established orphanages, soup kitchens, employment agencies, and poor relief funds.” (Foner p. 42) Clearly ambition and enterprise and organizational and business skills were unleashed with the new opportunities.

In New Orleans newly freed slaves and already free blacks joined the police force to great effect. All over the South, blacks ran for local and state offices, and won. It must have been a giddy time for Southern blacks.

But Lincoln was killed and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President. What a disaster. His earlier years as a politician had indicated Johnson was something of a populist. He was, after all, allied with Lincoln and had what we might now call liberal ideas. But some evil worm burrowed into his heart and another one into his brain, and he began to systematically dismantle Reconstruction.

Naturally Johnson did not do this by himself. Racism had been declared illegal under the Constitution  with the passage of the Civil Rights amendments. That didn’t, however, erase it from people’s minds. Economics was a big factor, too, since freeing the slaves tore up the economy and substituting some form of labor that favored the planters, for instance, seemed to many the only course to stabilizing the economy. Then the vote was restored to former rebels who proceeded to infect every state house as well as Congress with more and more obstacles to black’s establishing themselves financially or politically. It’s complicated, and I don’t have it all at my fingertips, but within a few years, the glory days of hope were smashed.

At this point, significant elements in our country are so enmeshed in racism that we have the need for Black Lives Matter movements. Ferguson. New York. St. Petersburg. Everywhere? The difficulties of being black in our country today are not subtle. And not uncomplicated, either.

One can’t help wondering, What if Lincoln had lived another 10 years?

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About glcraig

Gretchen Craig’s lush, sweeping tales deliver edgy, compelling characters who test the boundaries of integrity, strength, and love. Told with sensitivity, the novels realistically portray the raw suffering of people in times of great upheaval. Gretchen was born and raised in Florida. She’s lived in climates and terrain as diverse as the white beaches of the Gulf Coast, the rocky shores of Maine, and the dusty plains of Texas. Her awareness of place imbues every page with the smell of the bayous of Louisiana, the taste of gumbo in New Orleans, or the grit of a desert storm. Rich in compelling characters and historical detail, Always and Forever is a sweeping saga of Josie and Cleo, mistress and slave. Amid Cajuns and Creoles, the bonds between these two remarkable women are tested by prejudice, tragedy, and passion for one extraordinary man. Gretchen’s first novel won the Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence for Mainstream with Romantic Elements and was chosen as an Editor’s Pick in the Historical Novel Society reviews. Ever My Love, winner of the Booksellers Best Award from the Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America, continues the story of Cleo and Josie’s families, of their struggle for principle, justice, and love in a world where the underpinnings of the plantation culture are crumbling. Crimson Sky, inspired by the pueblos, mountains, and deserts of New Mexico, evokes the lives of people facing neighboring marauders and drought. Now the march of Spanish Conquistadors up the Rio Grande threatens their homeland, their culture, and their entire belief system.
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