When the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment was passed, former slaves moved to Atlanta in great numbers (Atlanta’s population was 20% black by 1860 and 46% black ten years later). As the war-ravaged southern city of Atlanta was being physically reconstructed, the recently freed African Americans experienced a Reconstruction that was both different and similar to the Reconstruction white people experienced as both groups adjusted to life in a post-slavery era.
During Reconstruction, African American women in particular experienced different types of freedom beyond being freed from a condition of slavery: economic freedom, political freedom, the ability to reunite their families, and access to education. However, these newly gained freedoms did not come without opposition; white people fought hard to re-establish a racial hierarchy and limit the independence of African Americans during Reconstruction. The recently freed slaves faced many challenges as they moved into the destroyed city of Atlanta.
Willing to endure obstacles like “food shortages, natural disasters, dilapidated housing, and inadequate clothing,” African Americans moved to the city in order to be protected from harm, join a community of other African Americans, and become economically self-sufficient. Groups like the Freedmen’s Bureau attempted to help African Americans transition into life during Reconstruction by offering assistance in finding labor, food, and housing. While the city was being rebuilt, the economy of Atlanta was being reconstructed simultaneously.
The agricultural economy that existed in the South prior to the Civil War ended and “a more diverse urban economy” was created, offering economic opportunities for both African American men and women. African American women experienced a new type of economic freedom as they moved out the countryside and into the city. Black women had less job opportunities than men did and were primarily domestic laborers, working as cooks, maids, and child-nurses as they were barred from the manufacturing plants that hired white women.
Because black women were now to be compensated for their work and the free labor system no longer existed, there was an effort on both the part of the employer and the employee to establish new conditions surrounding work as the master/slave dynamic became the employer/employee dynamic. For the first time, black women “labored according to their own sense of equity, with the guiding assumption that wage labor should not emulate slavery. ” Black women were now able to negotiate better pay for themselves or even quit and seek better employment if they did not like the way they were being treated by their employers.
For example, Hannah, a domestic help hired by Virginia Shelton, was able to secure better wages for her and her husband through bargaining with her employer. African American women were able to exert more control over their economic situations due to the new labor system that was created. But even though African Americans were gaining economic freedom, they experienced pushback from white Americans. Potential employers began requiring recommendations from former employers, making it harder for black women to find new employment. Additionally, “quitting work became defined as ‘idleness’ and ‘vagrancy’ prosecutable offenses.
Southern states began passing repressive Black Codes in 1865 to obstruct black laborers’ full participation in the marketplace and political arena. ” In order to secure the economic freedom gained through a new labor system, African Americans also needed to secure their political freedom. Although African American women were disenfranchised, unlike their male counterparts, they still were able to experience political freedom during Reconstruction. Black women attended political parades, rallies, and conventions in which they were able to voice their opinions freely as the African American community valued the opinions the whole community.
In addition, the women formed their own political organizations, were able to exert their influence over the men who were enfranchised, and risked their lives in violent political situations. But as black people were gaining more political rights the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) formed in 1866. An opponent to black rights, the KKK suppressed black people’s political power by terrorizing black families emotionally and physically. However, this fear of harassment did not stop the reuniting of families that occurred during Reconstruction.
Reconstruction offered African American women the opportunity to find their former family members and rebuild the connections that had been torn away from them. For African Americans there were loose interpretations of family and black women often took care of children who weren’t related to them by blood, creating a close-knit African American community. Family was extremely important and for some, the reunion of the family was their idea of freedom. The romantic relationships between men and women proved to be one of the most important and fundamental family ties.
Marriages previously considered as “long-term commitments, usually only disrupted by forcible separation or the death of a spouse,” were now legally sanctioned, giving couples the legal ability to keep their families together. Nevertheless, Georgia’s Apprentice Act of 1866 stated that black orphans would remain in the care of a guardian until the age of 21, separating the family; in response family members would contact the Freedmen’s Bureau to help them rescue their children as they tried to reconstruct their families. Education was another way that African American women were able to exercise their freedom during Reconstruction.
It was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write but some slaves taught themselves and others in secret schools. With Reconstruction came the opening of schools where former slaves and their children could receive an education and black people of all ages were filling up schools eager to learn because they viewed education as the key to opening up a brighter future. Education and politics went hand and hand as the Georgia Equal Rights Education Association (formerly known as the Savannah Education Association) linked equal rights to education and trained many black politicians.
Unfortunately, this push for universal public education was one that was not sustained as the local government, which was was controlled by Democrats, opposed public education for African Americans and did not take any legislative measures to support their cause. However, this did not stop the many African American women who sought out an education and stressed the importance of education to their children. In conclusion, Reconstruction was more than rebuilding what had been destroyed: it was the creation of a society that gave black women freedom for the first time.
Freedom meant getting an education, rebuilding lost family connections, economic freedom and political power. As the nation headed towards a new economic system and way of life, African American women were able to create a new life after slavery and experience new types of freedom unavailable to them before the war. These freedoms, however, were attacked by white people who desired to keep black people in a state of inferiority. This struggle for freedom and equality continued then and even continues today as black people struggle to maintain an equal place in society against oppression.