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Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

Black History Month: Reconstruction, 1865-1866

In December of 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suggested a plan to reinstate the seceded states back into the Union, his “Ten Percent Plan.”

He would permit each Confederate state to form a new state government after ten percent of the voters in a state took loyalty oaths to the Union and recognized the former slaves’ freedom.

Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 9, 1865, his successor, former Vice-President Andrew Johnson, decided to run with Lincoln’s Ten Percent Plan.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1866, the Southern states held special state conventions. At them, they repealed secession, repudiated all Confederate debts, ratified the 13th Amendment that outlawed slavery, and held elections, all in accord with the Ten Percent Plan.

Those elected to various offices in these new state governments included: four former Confederate generals, five colonels, members of the Confederate government’s cabinet, plus Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s former Vice-President, who was indicted for treason.

President Johnson felt embarrassed that a series of former Confederates were back in power.

The one constant in these new state governments was their utter contempt for the former slaves, whom they considered “unfit, “inferior,” and “incapable of self-government.”

The new state governments passed a series of Black Codes, designed to keep the former slave poor, stuck at the bottom of the social ladder, with no opportunity for advancement.

Vagrancy laws within the Black Codes forced blacks into contracted labor on a plantation’s fields. Also, the Black Codes denied the former slaves equal protection under the law.

The former slaves convened at their own conventions, called Colored Conventions. At them, delegates discussed “labor, health care, temperance, emigration, voting rights, trial by jury, and education.” Anyone can read the convention’s minutes at the “Colored Conventions Project.”

On December 4, 1865, when the Thirty-Ninth Congress first convened in Washington D.C., Northern Republicans were dismayed to see former Confederates try to walk into the Capitol and assume a seat. They slammed the door in their faces, and Congress’s clerk refused to seat them.

They were called names: “impudent claimants,” “unrepentant,” and “former enemies.”

Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican in the House,” said, “Dead states cannot restore their existence. Congress must create states and declare when they are entitled to be represented.”

Both Presidential and Confederate Reconstruction had ended, but now Congressional Reconstruction was set to begin. A “spirit of revenge” motived these Radical Republicans to act.

On Dec. 13, 1865, Congress formed a Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, composed of nine Representatives and six Senators to investigate and determine under what terms the seceded states might regain their status as a state, plus congressional representation.

The committee interviewed “144 witnesses, including 77 Northerners living in the South, 8 Blacks, and 57 Southerners,” and produced “more than 700 pages of testimony, a dreary recital of inhumanity,” of how whites mistreated the former slaves throughout the Southern states.

The committee first recommended further support for the Freedmen’s Bureau, intended to provide relief, food, and schools for the blacks. It also recommended a civil rights bill.

On April 9, 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, by a two-thirds vote over President Johnson’s veto. It declared that “all persons born in the United States were citizens,” “without distinction of race or color or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.”

This Act was unique, the first United States federal law to define what persons are citizens.

Black History Month ends this week.

Reconstruction is a messy history. Some consider it a low point in American history. Others, including Eric Foner, historian at Columbia University, label it our nation’s “Second Founding.”

More next time on Reconstruction in these pages, thoughts on the 14th Amendment.

Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley and Billy Lee

Two African-American slaves from the eighteenth century: Phillis Wheatley and William “Billy” Lee. The first a woman, the second a man. The first a poet, the second a valet. The two received their freedom from their respective owners, and they each knew George Washington.

First, Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753 or 1754, but when a child of 7 or 8, slave traders kidnapped her, sold her into slavery, and transported her to North America aboard the ship “The Phillis.” John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston purchased her in mid-July of 1761.

They gave her the name Phillis and asked their eighteen-year-old daughter Mary to tutor Phillis, who displayed a superb talent for learning English and Greek and Latin, for reading the Bible and classical works, and for composing poems. They encouraged the child’s literary talent.

In 1773, when Phillis turned 20, the Wheatley’s sent her to England, accompanied by their son Nathaniel, and there Phillis found a publisher willing to print her collection of poems that she entitled “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”

It was the first book written by an enslaved Black woman of America.

After Phillis returned to Boston in the fall of 1773, John and Susanna Wheatley set her free.

On Oct. 26, 1775, Phillis wrote a letter to General George Washington and enclosed a poem about him, entitled “His Excellency, General Washington.” Bold and daring she was.

In the cover letter she wrote, “I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and entreat your acceptance.” Note that her fifth word is “freedom.”

In the poem, she begins, “Celestial choir! enthroned in realms of light, Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.” Then, she ends the poem,

“Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.”

On Feb. 28, 1776, Washington wrote back to Phillis Wheatley, saying, “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines You enclosed. If you should ever come to Cambridge, I should be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses.”

The historical record is unclear if Washington understood then that Miss Wheatley was a former slave. It is also unclear if Washington ever met the poet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he and his army were holding a siege upon Boston that soon drove off the British army.

Phillis Wheatley passed away on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31.

Second, William Lee was George Washington’s slave and valet for two decades, including the years when Washington led the colonial army in a war with Great Britain, 1775-1783. “Billy” Lee rode his horse beside the general, and also set up and took down their tent.

In addition, Billy attended to Washington’s stack of papers, held onto his spyglass, combed his hair, laid out his clothes, mailed his letters, and delivered his messages. He was Washington’s manservant, and the two lived for “more than seven years in close proximity during the war.”

After the war, Billy hoped to continue to serve Washington in New York City, after voters elected Washington as the nation’s first president, but by then Lee’s knees were worn out, and he no longer could act as Washington’s valet. Washington sent him back to Mount Vernon.

There, Billy made shoes “in the small cobbler shop behind the greenhouse.”

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon. By his will, he set free one slave of the 317 slaves working then at Mount Vernon, and that was Billy Lee. Washington also stipulated that Billy was to receive “an annual allowance of $30 for the rest of his life, noting,

“This I give him for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”

Billy Lee remained at Mount Vernon until he too passed away in 1810.

Two former slaves to reflect upon during Black History Month: Phillis Wheatley and William “Billy” Lee. Also, a former President to consider on President’s Day: George Washington.

National Freedom Day and Black History Month

National Freedom Day and Black History Month

On Feb. 7, 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a professor of history, announced that he would celebrate and highlight for the first time ever a single week devoted to African-American history, and he called it “Negro History Week.”

He selected the second week in February because of its proximity to Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, Lincoln on Feb. 12, and Douglass on a day in February.

In February 1976, President Gerald Ford expanded that single week to the entire month of February and renamed it “Black History Month,” and he encouraged Americans to recognize, appreciate, and learn more of African-Americans’ participation in America’s history.

At the time of the Civil War in the early 1860’s, there were four million slaves, a massive labor force who worked the Southern states’ cotton fields. They received little pay, scant housing, and negligible food. State laws prevented them from learning to read, write, or vote.

Owned by white slaveholders, they were an oppressed population, forced to work in the cotton fields, unable to quit or leave. The white slave owners whipped their slaves whenever for whatever. The slaves were an abused people, downtrodden, uneducated, and disenfranchised.

For them, life was non-stop work without a shred of hope.

On Sept. 22, 1862, in the middle of a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln announced that on Jan. 1, 1863, 100 days hence, he would free the slaves, but he restricted his Emancipation to those slaves living in ten southern states that had seceded from the Union.

In the Emancipation Proclamation’s second paragraph, Lincoln wrote, “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be thenceforward, and forever free.”

Lincoln wrote that he expected the slaves to “be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence,” and that they would “labor faithfully for reasonable wages.”

He then invited “such persons of suitable condition to be received into the armed service(s) of the United States,” something Frederick Douglass highly desired and campaigned for often.

One wonders if Lincoln, the President of the United States, had authority to free slaves in another country, the newly-founded Confederate States of America. Lincoln wrote,

“And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” For Lincoln, the Proclamation was an “act of justice.”

Congress then took up the issue of outlawing slavery. The Senate passed the 13th Amendment in April 1864, and the House passed it in January of 1865 by a vote of 119 to 56.

On Feb. 1, 1865, Lincoln signed the Joint Resolution of Congress and submitted it to the state legislatures for ratification. The necessary three-fourths of the states ratified it by Dec. 6, 1865, and the 13th Amendment entered into the Constitution.

It consists of a single sentence. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Feb. 1, the day when Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, is now known as National Freedom Day. Freedom is a precious commodity. To receive it brings indescribable joy, but to lose it brings sorrow and grief. Without it, life is dull and ugly.

Frederick Douglass said it best prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, “The fate of our country is dependent upon the liberation of the slave.”

History has swept aside the Confederate’s idea that one race is superior to another. The Confederacy’s flag and all it stood for are gone. Black History Month begins Thursday, and National Freedom Day is Thursday.

Frederick Douglass’ “Slaveholder’s Sermon”

Frederick Douglass’ “Slaveholder’s Sermon”

David Blight teaches Civil War and Reconstruction history at Yale University. In 2018, Blight published a biography on the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, entitled, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

Blight tells a remarkable story. His biography deserved and did win the Pulitzer Prize in 2019.

Blight describes Douglass as a spell-binding lecturer through most of the nineteenth century, who left audiences both weeping and laughing, their emotions whipsawed by his incredible story of how he escaped from oppression and a brutal form of slavery in eastern Maryland.

Few of those who heard him speak could understand how this black man, who displayed awe-inspiring and phenomenal language skills on the lecture circuit, could have once worked as an uneducated field hand. Audiences wanted to know, “How did his transformation happen?”

Douglass was an autodidact, self-taught. It was an intense struggle, but on his own and in secret he learned to read. In slave-holding states laws on the books prevented white people from teaching black slaves how to read or write. Yet, Douglass was determined to master words.

In his lectures, Douglass often described his horrible days as a slave, drawing upon vivid details of how his owners would whip him, and that the scars across his back were proof.

On a given night on a stage somewhere in the northern states, in the 1840’s, Douglass would stand and say that he was there to spread light. “There is nothing slavery dislikes half so much as the light. It is a gigantic system of iniquity, that feeds and lives in darkness.”

He said that for down-trodden slaves the Bill of Rights was “the Bill of Wrongs,” and that self-evident truths were “self-evident lies.”

Crowds loved that part of Douglass’s lecture that Blight called “The Slaveholder’s Sermon.” In it, Douglass would mimic a Southern white preacher, who would talk down to the blacks.

“And you too, my friends, have souls of infinite value, souls that will live through endless happiness or misery in eternity. Oh, labor diligently to make your calling and election sure. Oh, receive into your souls these words of the holy apostle, ‘Servants, be obedient to your masters.’

“Oh, consider the wonderful goodness of God! Look at your hard hands, your strong muscular frames, and see how he has adapted you to the duties you are to fulfill.

“Look at your masters, who have slender frames and long delicate fingers. God has given them brilliant intellects, that they may do the thinking, while you do the working.”

While audiences laughed at his depiction of the Southern white preacher’s sermon, Douglass would recite the Golden Rule, and stare at his audience. The contrast was obvious.

Douglass would say, “In America, Bibles and slaveholders go hand in hand. The church and the slave prison stand together. While you hear the chanting of psalms in one, you hear the clanking of chains in the other.

“The man who wields the cowhide during the week, fills the pulpit on Sunday. The man who whipped me in the week used to show me the way of life on the Sabbath.”

In Douglass’s hands, “The Slaveholder’s Sermon” drew attention to the rankest form of Christian hypocrisy that existed throughout the fourteen slave-holding Southern states, a fact of life that all slaves faced every day. Yet, no slave dared to point it out, save for Douglass.

David Blight wrote, “A star had been born; a youthful, brilliant black voice of a fugitive slave had entered the fray of abolitionism.”

One hundred and twenty years before Martin Luther King, Jr. thrilled audiences with his uplifting and awe-inspiring words, Frederick Douglass did the same.

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln freed four million slaves by the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of a bloody Civil War. It took effect on January 1, 1863.

Assertion is not evidence

Assertion is not evidence

Assertation is not evidence

On May 11, 2017, the newly-elected U.S. President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order to form a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. He appointed Vice-President Mike Pence as chair, and Kansas State’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach as vice-chair.

For some time, Kobach had “promoted the myth of voter fraud and supported laws that restricted people from voting.” Two other members were “notorious advocates for voter suppression.” At least one member was a Democrat, Maine’s Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.

The reason the President established the commission was because election officials had certified that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote, 65,853,514 votes to Trump’s 62,984,828 votes, although he won the electoral college, 304 votes to Clinton’s 227.

This rare event—when a candidate wins the electoral college vote but loses the popular vote—occurred four times before: in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 when George W. Bush won.

Trump insisted that as many as “5 million votes were cast illegally in November 2016.”

A writer for the Brennan Center for Justice wrote the following:

“For years, exaggerated claims of fraud have been used to justify unwarranted restrictions on voting access. The president’s invented legions of illegal voters are the most extreme such claims in recent memory. His statements have been almost universally rejected.”

On January 3, 2018, six years ago today, President Trump disbanded the Commission. Its  members had met twice.

An article dated January 3, 2018 that appears on National Public Radio’s website presents a  list of comments from those involved or who observed the Commission’s work.

For example, White House press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement, “Despite substantial evidence of voter fraud, many states have refused to provide the Commission with basic information relevant to its inquiry.” Yet, she provided no evidence.

Officials in certain states chose to ignore the Commission’s request for “detailed voter data, including names, addresses, birthdates, partial Social Security numbers, and party affiliation.”

Kentucky’s Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said, “I’m not going to risk sensitive information for 3.2 million Kentuckians getting in the wrong hands, into the public domain.”

Some states mired the Commission down by filing multiple lawsuits against it.

Maine’s Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said, “My ability to participate in the work of the commission was completely shut off. I was walled off from any deliberations.”

He filed a lawsuit against the Commission demanding that it turn over documents to him. In August of 2018, he said that “drafts of a commission report included a section on evidence of voter fraud that was ‘glaringly empty.’ ‘It’s calling into the darkness, looking for voter fraud.’”

“In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that the Commission, “was nothing more than a front to suppress the vote, perpetrate dangerous and baseless claims, and was ridiculed from one end of the country to the other.”

It is sad but true that the stage was set to “perpetrate dangerous and baseless claims” later.

On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, a majority of voters elected Joseph Biden President of the United States. He received 306 electoral votes and 81,283,501 popular votes to Donald Trump’s 232 electoral votes and 74,223,975 popular votes. Biden won, Trump lost, but not end of story.

Trump insisted the election was rigged. Two days later, he said, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us. As everybody saw, we won by historic numbers. It’s a corrupt system.” None of that is true.

On January 6, 2021, 3 years ago this week, a mob of true believers stormed into the Capitol Building intent on halting Congress’s official duty to count and certify the electoral votes. Four people lost their lives that day. A sad day in our country’s life.