Reconstruction Era Union Lines
Celebrating Emancipation Day 1905
Juneteenth Band
White Boy Giving Shoe Shine
Up From Slavery: 34 Pictures Of Life After Emancipation
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For newly freed African-American slaves, life didn’t change overnight. After the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment may have brought an end to slavery in name – but, through the Reconstruction era and beyond, white slave owners found other ways to keep the spirit of slavery alive.

Some Freed Slaves Kept Working On The Same Plantations

As the South prepared for the realities of losing the Civil War, its leaders started planning how to keep the black workforce under their control. “There is really no difference,” said Alabama Judge D.C. Humphreys at a convention in March 1964, “whether we hold them as absolute slaves, or obtain their labor by some other method.”

Obtaining black labor wouldn’t prove to be that hard. Many slaves knew nothing but their lives of servitude on the master’s plantation and, with their newfound freedom, couldn't find new opportunities. As the Reconstruction era began, many slaves just stayed right where they were, working on the same plantations for the same white overseers.

Despite grand proclamations of freedom, little had actually changed. “I don’t know when freedom come on. I never did know,” freedman Charles Anderson of Arkansas told the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, trying to explain why he was still at the same plantation. “Master Stone never forced any of us to leave.”

Convicts Were Forced Back Into Slavery

Slavery wasn’t completely banned after the Civil War. The 13th Amendment contained a clause that some of the Southern states exploited to keep slavery alive. The amendment allows for "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude... except as a punishment for crime.”

The Southern states thus introduced the Black Codes, later expanded into the Jim Crow laws, that let them lock up freed black men for next to nothing. During the Reconstruction era, black men could be locked up just for cursing near a white woman. Then they’d be placed in a chain gang and driven back into forced labor.

In some states, laws forced freed slaves to accept minuscule pay. And if a black man was caught without a job, he could be charged with vagrancy. The courts would find him a job and force him to work it – but now they wouldn’t have to pay him a dime.

Sharecropping Made Slaves Through Debt

The government promised freed slaves 40 acres of land and a mule to work it – but it never happened. They backed out of the deal nearly as soon as they promised it. The freed slaves didn’t have any place to go, and most white landowners refused to sell to them.

Instead, many freed slaves started sharecropping. White landlords would rent out small patches of land to freedmen – but at a heavy cost. The white landlords could tell them what they had to grow, demand half of what they made, and stick them with a debt that was impossible to escape.

It was slavery in all but name. The freed black families were still living on a white man’s land, growing what he ordered and giving it to him, and still had no way to escape.

And all of these practices carried on for decades. When World War II began, countless black families were still living in sharecropper’s homes, working on plantations, or being forced onto prison chain gangs.

Slavery in America continued. Long after the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, slavery, at least in spirit, lived on.


Next, read about the slave who escaped George Washington and have a look at these letters from former slaves to their masters.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.
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