Summary Objective 20

Students will examine the ways that white Southerners attempted to define freedom for freedpeople. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 5, 8 & 10


What else should my students know?

20.A White Southerners largely wanted to return to the pre-war plantation economy. Initially, southern landowners hoped to hire freedpeople to work under conditions that were nearly identical to those under slavery. A combination of factors, including the unwillingness of freedpeople to work under slavery conditions and the fact that most white farmers were deeply in debt after the war, meant that this system did not work. Instead, tenant farming and sharecropping became the predominant labor systems. 

20.B In general, both tenant farmers and sharecroppers lived on another person’s land and used the proceeds from their farming to pay rent for their home and land and to settle other debts. Whatever money was left belonged to the tenant or was split among the sharecroppers. Freedpeople preferred tenant farming because there was less supervision by landowners. Unfortunately, the reality for most tenant farmers and sharecroppers was an endless cycle of debt and poverty. This was partly due to the bad economy, but it was also a result of unfair labor contracts signed with landowners. 

20.C The Ku Klux Klan emerged as a terrorist organization committed to violent repercussions for African Americans or their white allies who sought education, political power or economic success for the black population.

20.D Black Codes were sets of laws passed by former Confederates who regained power under Johnson’s Presidential Reconstruction. These laws codified certain rights such as owning property or legally marrying, but they also guaranteed harsher punishments for people of color accused of the same crimes as white people.


How can I teach this?

  • To understand sharecropping and tenant farming, examine a sharecropper contract. These documents are widely available online. One example is available to K-12 teachers with a free account through the website of The Gilder Lehrman Institute.
  • Letters archived by the The Freedmen and Southern Society Project provide contemporary protests of racial violence and unfair laws.
  • In a January 25, 1866 letter to the Freedmen's Bureau, M. Howard, a freedman in Mississippi, protests labor contracts and Black Codes.
  • In a December 16, 1865 letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau, black soldier Calvin Holly writes to protest the violence directed at freedpeople in Mississippi.
  • The Colfax Massacre is an understudied act of violence that occurred after a contested Louisiana gubernatorial election in 1873. One hundred and fifty black men were murdered by southern Democrats who saw them as a threat to Democratic power. Several of the perpetrators of the massacre were prosecuted under the Enforcement Act (Civil Rights Act of 1870). This law was passed to protect the rights of African Americans, who were regularly threatened by violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Colfax convictions were appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) that the protections of the 14th Amendment protected people only from the actions of state governments—not from the actions of individuals. This meant that the federal government could not use the Enforcement Act to target terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. 

  • Students might examine documents that threatened African-American rights. This broadside, published by a “Committee” (likely the name for a local band of white vigilantes) and seized by the Freedman’s Bureau in Tennessee, outlined rules for freedpeople and promised penalties for any infractions. 
  • Key examples of Black Code legislation included laws that exploited or regulated the labor of black bodies. Vagrancy laws (particularly in Mississippi and South Carolina) allowed magistrates to arrest any black man who appeared unemployed and hire him out to a white planter. Apprenticeship laws meant that if courts ruled that parents were unable to adequately care for children under 18, those children could be apprenticed out as labor, with preference given to former enslavers. Licensure laws required African Americans to get a special license to do anything other than farm.

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