African-Americans after slavery – Reconstruction

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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.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Reconstruction? Let us know in the comments.

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

By |2018-11-27T16:07:43+00:00August 14th, 2017|History|11 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. African-Americans after slavery – Reconstruction. Study Guides, August 14, 2017. Web. December 16, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. […] paid almost twice as much as African-American soldiers. After the war, African-Americans “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 […]

  2. Dick Medvick April 5, 2018 at 9:01 pm - Reply


    I have light skin, with ancestral heritage from Russia and Slovakia. I have many darker-skinned American friends, who have ancestral heritage from south-west Africa, who were brought here as slaves.

    You do not explain the reasons that Americans with lighter skin treated Americans with darker skin poorly and differently from Americans with lighter skin, after American slaves were freed. I know how to stop the predjudiced behavior; but I cannot understand what caused it.

    Please help me exlain how this happened. Why did Americans with lighter skin call Americans with darker skin names […] ?

    • Dick Medvick April 5, 2018 at 9:05 pm

      What does, “your comment is awaiting moderation” mean?!

    • Karen Carr April 5, 2018 at 11:21 pm

      It means that until I see and approve your comment, nothing is visible to other people – that keeps kids from posting strings of bad words for fun.

    • Karen Carr April 5, 2018 at 11:28 pm

      Hi Dick,
      I edited your comment to take out anything that seemed hurtful to other people, because I’m sure that’s not what you intended. There are a lot of answers to your question, and of course different people have different reasons for doing things. But the main reason is that white people benefit from having a lot of other people who they can order around – they get cheaper help with their house-cleaning, cheaper nannies and janitors, cheaper factory workers, and so on. In effect, having black people be poorer makes white people richer. It’s easy to say that we don’t think it’s right for black people to be oppressed and poor, but it’s much harder for white people to agree to be less privileged and less rich – to give up the advantages we get from oppression.

    • Keith June 20, 2018 at 2:27 pm

      Look up Willie Lynch speech 1712

    • Karen Carr June 20, 2018 at 5:39 pm
  3. Dr. Smith February 18, 2018 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    I’m trying to cite this, but I can’t seem to find where the publisher/sponsor name is.

    • Karen Carr February 19, 2018 at 12:23 am

      The publisher is Study Guides; there’s a cite box underneath the main article on each page all pre-formatted for you.

  4. bedeer February 6, 2018 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    doesn’t even make sense you don’t know what your saying

    • Karen Carr February 6, 2018 at 4:20 pm

      Sorry you feel that way! Is there something in particular you think I should change?

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