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The Reconstruction Era

Grades 6-8 | Historical Analysis | Source-Based

Source Lexile®: 1050L-1510L

Learning Standards





Prompt: Research the outcomes of the Reconstruction Era. First, read three secondary sources (“The Federal Government’s Solution to the Social Problem: The Freedmen’s Bureau,” “Black Codes,” and “Reconstruction Social Success: Coming of Age for African Americans”).  Then, read the primary source “From an Assessment of the Freedmen’s Bureau Written by W.E.B. Dubois, African American Scholar, 1901.” After analyzing these sources, write an essay that makes a claim about whether or not Reconstruction was successful. Include evidence from at least three sources to support your claims and acknowledge opposing positions.





Source 1

The Federal Government’s Solution to the Social Problem: The Freedmen’s Bureau (excerpt) (Secondary)


The Freedmen’s Bureau was a special organization to help former slaves and poor whites in the South. In 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau to provide assistance to former slaves. Union Army General Oliver O. Howard was the Bureau's Commissioner.


The Freedmen’s Bureau was to aid and protect the newly freed blacks in the South after the Civil War. Established by an act of March 3, 1865, under the name “bureau of refugees, freedmen, and abandoned lands,” it was to function for one year after the close of the war.


A bill extending its life indefinitely and greatly increasing its powers was vetoed (February 19, 1866) by President Andrew Johnson, who viewed the legislation as an unwarranted (and unconstitutional) continuation of war powers in peacetime. The veto marked the beginning of the President's long and unsuccessful fight with the Radical Republican Congress over Reconstruction.


In slightly different form, the bill was passed over Johnson's veto on July 16, 1866. Organized under the War Department, with General Oliver O. Howard as its commissioner, and thus backed by military force, the bureau was one of the most powerful instruments of Reconstruction. Howard divided the ex-slave states, including the border slave states that had remained in the Union, into 10 districts, each headed by an assistant commissioner.


The bureau's work consisted chiefly of five kinds of activities:

  1. relief work for both blacks and whites in war-stricken areas,
  2. regulation of black labor under the new conditions,
  3. administration of justice in cases concerning the blacks,
  4. management of abandoned and confiscated property, and
  5. support of education for blacks.


To a great degree the bureau operated as a political machine, organizing the black vote for the Republican party and, as a result, the bureau’s political activities made it thoroughly hated in the South. However, because of political scandals within the bureau caused by corrupt agents within the bureau itself, an economic panic, and southern white resistance, the work of the Freedmen's Bureau was discontinued by July 1, 1869. Its educational activities, however, were carried on for another three years and helped thousands of former slaves to be able to read and write.





Source 2

Black Codes (excerpt) (Secondary)



Passage of the Black Codes


Even as former slaves fought to assert their independence and gain economic autonomy during the earliest years of Reconstruction, white landowners acted to control the labor force through a system similar to the one that had existed during slavery. To that end, in late 1865, Mississippi and South Carolina enacted the first black codes. Mississippi’s law required blacks to have written evidence of employment for the coming year each January; if they left before the end of the contract, they would be forced to forfeit earlier wages and were subject to arrest. In South Carolina, a law prohibited blacks from holding any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they paid an annual tax of $10 to $100. This provision hit free blacks already living in Charleston and former slave artisans especially hard. In both states, blacks were given heavy penalties for vagrancy, including forced plantation labor in some cases.


Under Johnson’s policies of Presidential Reconstruction, nearly all the southern states would enact their own black codes in 1865 and 1866. While the codes granted certain freedoms to African Americans–including the right to buy and own property, marry, make contracts, and testify in court (only in cases involving people of their own race)–their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity. Some states limited the type of property that blacks could own, while virtually all the former Confederate states passed strict vagrancy and labor contract laws, as well as so-called “anti-enticement” measures designed to punish anyone who offered higher wages to a black laborer already under contract. Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating, and forced labor, and apprenticeship laws forced many minors (either orphans or those whose parents were deemed unable to support them by a judge) into unpaid labor for white planters. Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, the black codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces (often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War) across the South.



Enforcement and Impact of the Black Codes


The restrictive nature of the codes and widespread black resistance to their enforcement enraged many in the North, who argued that the codes violated the fundamental principles of free labor ideology. After passing the Civil Rights Act over Johnson’s veto, Republicans in Congress effectively took control of Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment–which granted “equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves–and enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union. The 15th Amendment, adopted in 1870, guaranteed that a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During this period of Radical Reconstruction (1867-1877), blacks won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress.


As indicated by the passage of the black codes, however, white southerners showed a steadfast commitment to ensuring their supremacy and the survival of plantation agriculture in the postwar years. Support for Reconstruction policies waned after the early 1870s, undermined by the violence of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. By 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction drew to a close, blacks had seen little improvement in their economic and social status, and the vigorous efforts of white supremacist forces throughout the region had undone the political gains they had made.





Source 3

Reconstruction Social Success: Coming of Age for African Americans (excerpt) (Secondary)



Coming of Age of Political Rights


Under the terms of the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Republican governments came to power throughout the South, offering blacks, for the first time in American history, a genuine share of political power. These governments established the region's first public school systems, enacted civil rights laws, and sought to promote the region's economic development. The coming of black suffrage under the Reconstruction Act of 1867 produced a wave of political mobilization among African Americans in the South. The Forty-First and Forty-Second Congress included black members for the first time in American history. A total of sixteen blacks served in Congress during Reconstruction. Blacks were joined by white newcomers from the North--called "carpetbaggers" by their political opponents. And the Republican Party in some states attracted a considerable number of white Southerners, to whom Democrats applied the name "scalawag"--mostly Unionist small farmers, but included some prominent plantation owners.


The Reconstruction Act of 1867 stipulated that all former Confederate states except Tennessee hold conventions to draft new constitutions that granted former slaves the rights of citizenship. Two-hundred and sixty-five African Americans, or twenty-five per cent of the total delegates, attended these conventions held in Southern states in 1868-69, making them the first public bodies in American history with substantial black representation.


Composed of slave ministers, artisans, Civil War veterans, and blacks who had been free before the Civil War, a black political leadership emerged that pressed aggressively for an end to the South's racial caste system.


African Americans served in virtually every political capacity during Reconstruction, from members of Congress to state and local officials. Their presence in positions of political power symbolized the political revolution brought on by Reconstruction.



Political Rights Leads to Education


By 1870, the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union under new constitutions that marked a striking departure in southern government. For the first time in the region's history, state-funded public school systems were established, as well as orphan asylums and other facilities.


The new governments passed the region's first civil rights laws, reformed the South's old-fashioned tax system, and embarked on ambitious and expensive programs of economic development, hoping that railroad and factory development would produce a better tomorrow shared by both races. Education, denied them under slavery, was essential to the African-American understanding of freedom. Young and old, the freed people flocked to the schools established after the Civil War. For both races, Reconstruction laid the foundation for public schooling in the South.


Northern benevolent (charity) societies, the Freedmen's Bureau, and, after 1868, state governments, provided most of the funding for black education, but the initiative often lay with blacks themselves, who purchased land, constructed buildings, and raised money to hire teachers.





Source 4

From an Assessment of the Freedmen’s Bureau Written by W.E.B. Dubois, African American Scholar, 1901 (Primary Source)


  1. [H]ere, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen’s Bureau... There were, in 1868, 900 Bureau officials scattered from Washington to Texas, ruling, directly and indirectly, many millions of men. And the deeds of these rulers fall mainly under seven heads: the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing of the beginnings of free labor, the buying and selling of land, the establishment of schools, the paying of bounties, the administration of justice, and the financiering of all these activities. Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had been treated by Bureau physicians and surgeons, and sixty hospitals and asylums had been in operation. In fifty months of work, 21,000,000 free rations were distributed at a cost of over $4,000,000, beginning at the rate of 30,000 rations a day in 1865, and discontinuing in 1869.
  2. Such was the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau. To sum it up in brief, we may say: it set going a system of free labor; it established the black-peasant proprietor; it secured the recognition of black freemen before courts of law; it founded the free public school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to establish good will between ex-masters and freedmen; to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods that discouraged self-reliance; to make Negroes landholders in any considerable numbers. Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its failures were the result of bad local agents, inherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect.


The Freedmen's Bureau.” March 1901. The Atlantic Monthly 87:521 (1901). American Memory. Library of Congress. Web.










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