The Union victory in 1865 marked the close of the Civil War. One of the most widely anticipated benefits of emancipation was freedom of movement. No longer confined by law to a slaveholder’s plantation, most formerly enslaved African Americans expected to have the option of migrating. However, during Reconstruction, “vagrancy” laws, debt peonage and the convict-lease system were quickly implemented to curtail the new freedom. The labor of African Americans had been the mainstay of the southern economy, so efforts to force them to remain and work in the communities where they had been enslaved often succeeded. This was because they were destitute, and the “40 acres and a mule” they expected never arrived.
The legal battle for equality continued with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, but unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal policies and a campaign of terrorism carried out by the KKK and allied groups, made sure that African Americans would not easily achieve their real freedom in the Southern states. Moreover, those who migrated to the North quickly realized they had not reached the promised land and continued to face discriminatory practices in housing and employment. Those that had migrated to the West, however, fared better. Finally, in 1954, the Brown v. School Board of Topeka, Kansas, decision declared segregation to be unconstitutional.
Despite the hardships, many native-born African Americans succeeded in almost all occupations. And, like all other ethnic and cultural groups who made a life for themselves and their families in America, the native-born African Americans have made—and continue to make—a vital contribution to our nation’s growth. (Text and photographs from the Americans All Classroom Resources.)