There is an interesting little noted fact of African American history that would alter current standard views if it were ever to be properly recognised. The U.S. African American population was in many measurable respects worse off fifty years after emancipation than it had been before the War Between the States.
The census of 1900 showed that the average life expectancy of black Americans had declined by 10 years from 1860.
This can best be explained by losses in nutrition, health, and housing, and by unemployment, over-work, crime, and vice. Several decades later, in the 1930s, former bondsmen interviewed for the Works Progress Administration showed nostalgia for a time when they had been well-fed, not required to struggle for survival, and had lots of down-time from work. This opinion was not universal, but it was substantial across the board.
The default position of American intelligentsia is that Southern white people are always the villains in any bad situation. They will claim that the ex-slaves did not really mean what they said. And anyway, the depressed condition of the black people after emancipation was caused by Southern oppression and discrimination. The only fault of Northerners was that they had been deterred by Southern violence from carrying out the complete revolution for equality that should have been enforced. Exactly what the resulting situation would have been and whether it would have been better is not considered.
We might be encouraged to take a closer look at the whole matter of the nobility of emancipation. It occurred in the worst possible way, by a destructive invading army. Southern leaders realised the challenge this would be for the mass of propertyless and uneducated freedmen and for society itself. Northern leaders basically did not care about the emancipated ones, leaning toward Lincoln’s solution: “Root, hog, or die.”
To achieve better understanding it is also necessary to take another look at Reconstruction, the most lied-about era of American history. Not very long ago, historians of every affiliation except for some (not even all) Communists, agreed that Reconstruction was an orgy of oppression and looting carried out by bad leaders and was the worst sin in American history.
The Communist view is now mainstream: the success of Reconstruction was prevented by violent Southerners determined to maintain white supremacy and economic privilege. To revolutionaries, anybody who resists them is by definition guilty of any violence that occurs. This is false in every aspect. It is assumed that Northern leaders had a deep intention to achieve equality for black Americans. No such intention ever existed except in rhetoric. The purpose of Reconstruction (as of the war) was to loot the South and use the black people as a tool to keep the Republican party in power.
The emancipators made only trivial temporary provision for a portion of the dislocated black people. There was and never had been any plan of the conquerors to deal with the consequences the immense revolution they had decreed. The Republicans, as can be clearly shown in evidence, withdrew the Army from the South because with new western States they no longer needed the votes of Southern blacks and because the idealistic abolitionists were disgusted that the African Americans had not turned themselves into prim, industrious New Englanders as expected. Also, the whole thing of military occupation and disfranchisement of whites had become an obvious fraud when in some States two different carpetbagger groups were calling for federal troops to support them against each other.
The Reconstructed state constitutions authorised public school systems. Meaningless since all the funds were looted, as they were from railroad projects and other “improvements.”
What were Southern whites to do in this situation? They had to deal with a long period of discriminatory economic laws, the destruction and dislocation of the war, military occupation, punitive taxes, the looting of their scarce resources, a good deal of disorder, and immense debt left by carpetbagger corruption. They had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There were more white sharecroppers by 1900 than black. Actually, Southern whites were sympathetic to the blacks immediately after the war. They had lived together a long time and there had been no revolts during the war. Hostility was the product of Reconstruction more than of the war or emancipation.
Some black people achieved position as solid farmers, professional people, and businessmen. They remained an accepted part of the South for a long time. They formed Christian communities that barely existed for those who were found in Northern ghettos in the 20th century. But the majority were not able to achieve an improved position. What the white South could have done for them in their own impoverished situation it did, in supporting public schools out of their own scarce resources and other civic actions. Their remained much friendship and cooperation in private life and Southern leaders realized that uplifting of the blacks was necessary for the health of their society.
What happened in the South between the races in the late 1800s was greatly affected by the passing of the black and white generations who had known the old regime. Postwar people had been raised in different circumstances without the personal connections of the Old South. The increase of white supremacy violence and segregation, after the end of Reconstruction, was a response to, not a cause of, black deterioration.
The response of knowledgeable African American leaders of the time contradicts the Radical story of emancipation and Reconstruction. Hiram Revels, who held the Mississippi U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Jefferson Davis, wrote President Grant in 1875 that tension between the races would already have been resolved except for the carpetbaggers who were there to loot, and who left the black people with nothing except having been degraded by being used as political tools. He was ready to collaborate with honourable white Southerners.
In a public speech Frederick Douglass, the most prominent African American of the time, said that his people had no reason to revere Lincoln since everything he had done was in the interest of Northern whites without any real concern for the slaves, who had been left with nothing.
Paul Laurance Dunbar, the most gifted of all African American writers, in his late 1800s poetry regretted the loss of the good fraternal character of the old regime, which had not been entirely without merit, and lamented the deteriorated condition of his own people.
Two interesting books appeared with a similar view.
In 1886 John Wallace published Carpetbag Rule in Florida, with the subtitle The Inside Workings of the Reconstruction of Civil Government in Florida After the Close of the Civil War. Wallace was born a slave. During the war he crossed the line into Union- occupied eastern North Carolina and joined the Union Army. The end of the war found him in Florida where he decided to settle. He found early Reconstruction peaceful, a situation destroyed by Congressional Reconstruction and carpetbag rule. He was active in Republican affairs and served as a Republican in the state senate.
Wallace recounts Republican politics blow by blow. There were three factions of carpetbaggers. The smallest, to which he belonged, formed around a governor who was something of a fanatic for reform but not corrupt and had a real concern for the freedmen. The other two were competing groups of crooks who were interested only in the looting prospects of public office. They never did anything for the freedmen except mobilise them to hate Southern whites. He has good things to say about the Southern conservatives. They wanted to preserve their interests, of course, and to restore law and order, but they had no hostility to the freedmen and in political maneuvering always kept their word.
Another notable book is The America Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become, published in 1901. The author, William Hannibal Thomas, was born free in Ohio and was well-educated, largely at his own initiative. He lost an arm serving as an officer of U.S. Colored Troops, wrote several books, and held U.S. consul posts in Africa. His book is a sermon to his fellows that their sad condition is largely their own fault and they must give up laziness and dissipation. His message was essentially the same as Booker T. Washington’s, and like that leader he has been called a traitor.
We have two recent books that tell the truth, even better than the classic old works, about what happened to the South after the war. Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh and Punished with Poverty by Ronald and Donald Kennedy. If American scholarly discourse was normal these books would already have made an impression. But the academy is now radicalized to the point that genuine new views are anathema. Don’t expect Northerners any time soon, if ever, to give up their implicit assumption of superior virtue.