While slavery and the Civil War are the dominant forces of the 19th century, the period after the conclusion of the Civil War was perhaps more important and more interesting. The United States went through a tumultuous period of attempted Reconstruction, wherein leaders sought to put together a country that had been ripped to pieces by a bloody war. Reconstruction was largely abandoned, and the South was allowed to walk from the ashes of the Civil War without making too many concessions. This left freed black men and other minorities in a difficult position. They had won freedom, which meant that they were a new, emerging problem for white Americans who were increasingly fearful that black people would overrun the country and exact a measure of revenge because of what had happened during the era of slavery. Importantly, the official policy in many places in the wake of the Civil War sought to provide integration and some modicum of equal rights for newly freed minorities and other minority members, while the unofficial policies and structures were still maintained to keep the existing power base in control. In the face of this two-tiered system, many newly freed black men and women sought to take advantage of opportunities while also keeping a healthy sense of skepticism about the potential consequences of stepping out of line.
While official policies were put into place to give freed black people an opportunity to work, hold office, and the like, many white people harbored deep fear about black people. This came in large part from the guilt these people felt as a result of what slavery had been and how black people had been treated. Many black leaders understood that the only way black people would advance is if white people had their feelings and fears massaged so much that they would be willing to give black people an opportunity to succeed. This can be seen in Booker T. Washington’s speech in Atlanta, where he said, “You can be sure that in the future, you will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people the world has ever seen.” In this, he was attempting to put to rest the many fears of white people in hopes that it would lead to more opportunities for black people. Part of the reason he was doing this was because of the so-called black codes that had been put in place by white people during this time. While black people were officially free and given the chance to hold office and move freely, they were restricted by laws against land ownership, laws against gun ownership, and even forces like lynching, which sought to institute social control over black people. Black people were often restricted from involvement in commerce, as well, which Washington was railing against when he spoke to a group of largely white people at Atlanta.

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Ida B. Wells made clear that the official law and the unwritten law looked very different in the South. While officially speaking the cities like New Orleans and Memphis made attempts at reconciling the races through integrated busses and schools, there were some elements of social control that gave rise to a righteous response from the newly freed black population. Wells write of “Judge Lynch,” a name given to describe the lynch law that took over during this time in the absence of an actual law enslaving African-Americans. She wrote, “The awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling each week is appalling.” Sundown towns and outright lynching parties were designed to ensure that black people did not take advantage of new rights. This did not stop all black people, of course. Many black men went on to serve in state legislatures and take positions of power in friendlier communities. This, too, gave rise to the KKK, which was the body tasked with instilling the most fear into black people. Many black people pushed back against this, while others feared for their lives and attempted to make nice with white people to achieve those results.

Another attempt at social control occurred in regard to Native American people. In the wake of the Civil War, the US still had a so-called Indian problem, with tribes holding large areas of land that were seen as desirable for the US and necessary for US domination of the continent. With this in mind, the US used a policy of cultural integration to try and control Native American people. This social integration began by taking the children of Native Americans and instilling in them Christianity and other cultural elements that were antithetical to the long-standing native culture. In “American Indian Stories,” Zitka-Za writes, “In the autumn of the tenth year I was sent back to my tribe to preach Christianity to them. With the white man’s Bible in my hand, and the white man’s tender heart in my breast, I returned to my own people.” She was referring to the all-too-common process whereby children were expected to go back into their villages and teach a religion that was different from the robust cultural practices the tribe may have leaned on for hundreds of years. Many of the Native children and tribes resisted these efforts. They listened to what they were taught, but they also understood the importance of maintaining their own culture and the integrity of the tribe. This resistance ultimately led the United States to take more aggressive measures with some Native American tribes.

Ultimately there were many attempts by white people to control minorities in the wake of the Civil War. Integration was the official name of the game, but the unwritten law was sometimes more important. Minorities largely resisted, though they were in the unenviable position of wanting to both take advantage of their new rights and protect themselves from the difficult hand of unwritten social domination.

  • Fisher, Dexter, Zitkala Sa, and Gertrude Bonnin. “American Indian stories.” (1983): 97-100.
  • Wallace, Michele. “The good lynching and The Birth of a Nation: Discourses and aesthetics of Jim Crow.” Cinema Journal 43, no. 1 (2003): 85-104.
  • Washington, Booker T. “The Atlanta Compromise.” In Cotton States and International Exposition, September, pp. 1856-1901. 1895.
  • Washington, Booker T. “The Atlanta Exposition Address, 1895.” 
  • Wells-Barnett, Ida B. “Southern Horrors.” African American Classics in Criminology and Criminal Justice (2002): 23.