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A 13-year-old black boy in a field with a plow - Reconstruction

Reconstruction: A 13-year-old boy sharecropping (1937)

The end of slavery: Reconstruction

During the Civil War, in 1863 AD, President Lincoln announced the end of slavery. When the North won the war, in 1865, Congress and the states voted to change the Constitution to make slavery illegal. So all the people who were enslaved in the South became free.

More about the Civil War
Constitutional Amendments
More American history articles

Some people left the South

We call this time Reconstruction because the government was rebuilding the South after the Civil War wrecked it. Some people chose to leave the plantations, now that they were free. Some of them moved to the North to work on the railroads, or as house-cleaners or nannies or cooks, or to start their own businesses. Activists like Sojourner Truth tried to get the government to help black people find work. Some people went out West to be settlers or cowboys. But Western states made laws preventing African-Americans from moving there. A few people went back to Africa.

More about Sojourner Truth
What was going on in Africa?

Nannying ca. 1900

Nannying ca. 1900

Most people kept on picking cotton

But just like when the Austrian and Russian rulers freed their people in the 1850s and 1860s, most people just stayed about where they were before. They still didn’t own any land to farm. And if they tried to get land, white people attacked them. A lot of people kept on planting and picking cotton. Now they were sharecroppers instead of slaves. For a lot of people, it didn’t make much difference, only there were not so many beatings. And you didn’t have your kids or your husband taken away from you anymore.

Freeing the serfs in Austria-Hungary
What’s a sharecropper?
Sharecroppers and cotton


But white people still terrified black people by killing them for nothing, or for almost nothing. And no white judge or jury in the south would send any white man to jail for killing a black man. White people often killed black people without a trial, by lynching.

Unions and African-Americans

Sharecroppers picking cotton. See the little girl and the bigger boy? (ca 1890)

Sharecroppers picking cotton. See the little girl and the bigger boy? (ca 1890)

White workers’ unions usually didn’t let black people join, and white owners often used black workers as strike-breakers or paid them lower wages. So black people started their own unions, or joined new unions like the STFU, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, that had both white and black members. These helped black people to get better pay and better working arrangements.

The boll weevil gets in the cotton

About fifty years later, though, in 1910, the cotton was ruined by a kind of insect called a boll weevil. A lot of sharecroppers were starving from not having enough cotton to sell for food. Besides, it was getting cheaper to raise cotton using machines instead of people.

Many black people go North

So a lot more people decided to leave the South and go north to work. Because white people wouldn’t hire them for any good jobs, they still worked mostly as servants – as nannies, or cooks, or taking care of sick people – or in hard, dirty jobs like cleaning streets or building railroads.

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Learn by doing: do some babysitting or cook dinner
African-Americans in the 1900s
Martin Luther King

Bibliography and further reading about African-American History:

African-American Slavery
American History home