Webisode 7. Segment 3
Reconstruction Means Rebuilding
Laws and amendments by themselves were not enough to guarantee freedom to the former slaves. So, in 1867, Congress temporarily divided the South into military districts to restore order, and as prelude to creating new governments there. It became a time called Congressional Reconstruction. Many Northerners went to the South during this periodto teach, to help with aid programs, to help the state governments get going again, and sometimes to make money for themselves. Those Yankees were known as "carpetbaggers" , because the traveling bags of the time were made of carpet material. Most white Southerners hated the carpetbaggers. And some of the Northerners did take advantage of the South. But most went to help. White Southerners didn't want help from their former enemies. Then Congress passed a Reconstruction Act. Senator Timothy Howe of Wisconsin was overjoyed. He exclaimed, "We have cut loose from the whole dead past, and have cast our anchor out a hundred years."
Once again President Johnson vetoed the act. And, once again, enough votes were gathered in Congress to pass it over his veto. The act said that to become part of the Union again, each southern state must write a new state constitution that was true to the U.S. Constitution. The act also said that all males over twenty-one could vote, except for former convicted criminals and those who had been leaders of the Confederacy. That meant that many Confederate officers could not vote, but black men could. And the Northern soldiers made sure that black men were able to vote. It was amazing. Men who had been slaves a few years earlier were lining up at the polls . Many were illiterate (about one-fifth of the South's white population was illiterate, too; being illiterate doesn't mean being stupid). John Parrish was a white plantation owner. He wrote: "You never saw a people more excited on the subject of politics as the Negroes of the South. They are perfectly wild."
Many blacks were now elected to office . Mississippians Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels became U.S. senators. Revels took the old Senate seat of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The day he was sworn in, the Senate galleries were packed, and everyone stood as he walked down the aisle. Some observers burst into cheers. A Philadelphia newspaper wrote this on its editorial page: "Never since the birth of the republic has such an audience been assembled under one single roof. It embraced the greatest and the least American citizens."
It was difficult for Southern whites to accept what was happening. The Republican Party was ruling the entire South based on carpetbaggers, blacks, and scallawagswhich is what Southern whites who defected to the Republican Party were being called. But worst of all was the fact that blacks were in power. Black people in Congress ! Black people in the state legislatures! Some whites really believed the racist myths. They believed blacks couldn't think as well as whites!
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