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5.7: Reconstructions

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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You have examined cartoons by Thomas Nast about Reconstruction, and you have read about both the post-war debate about the freedmen and the sharecropping system that replaced slavery. This section adds the text of the three Constitutional amendments passed after the war, an example of a discriminatory local ‘Black Code’ from Louisiana, and two more eyewitness accounts about the condition of Reconstruction-era African Americans. Use these documents and others you have read to decide whether Blacks were really free during this period in American history.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments

Source: The 13th,14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution are sometimes called the “Reconstruction Amendments.” They were passed in order to abolish slavery and to establish the rights of former slaves.(Figure below).

The 13th Amendment

13th Amendment (1865)


Section 1.

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.

Section 2.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

14th Amendment (1868)


Section 1.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3.

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

15th Amendment (1870)

Fortieth Congress of the United States of America;

At the third Session, Begun and held at the city of Washington, on Monday, the seventh day of December, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-eight.

A Resolution Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Respresentatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, (two-thirds of both Houses concurring) that the following article be proposed to the legislature of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States which, when ratified by three-fourths of said legislatures shall be valid as part of the Constitution, namely:

Article XV.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude—

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


  1. Sourcing: When were the 13th,14th and 15th amendments passed?
  2. Contextualization: What was going on in the United States at this time?
  3. Close Reading: What rights did the amendments guarantee for American citizens?

Black Codes

Source: An example of “Black Codes,” from laws passed in Opelousas, Louisiana immediately after the Civil War.

In the years following the Civil War--throughout the South--state, city, and town governments passed laws to restrict the rights of free African-American men and women. These laws were often called “Black Codes.”

No negro or freedmen shall be allowed to come within the limits of the town of Opelousas without special permission from his employers.... Whoever shall violate this provision shall suffer imprisonment and two days work on the public streets, or pay a fine of five dollars. No negro or freedman shall be permitted to rent or keep a house within the limits of the town under any circumstances.... No negro or freedman shall reside within the limits of the town... who is not in the regular service of some white person or former owner... No public meetings or congregations of negroes or freedmen shall be allowed within the limits of the town.... No negro or freedman shall be permitted to preach, exhort, or otherwise declaim to congregations of colored people without a special permission from the mayor or president of the board of police.... No freedman... shall be allowed to carry firearms, or any kind of weapons.... No freedman shall sell, barter, or exchange any article of merchandise within the limits of Opelousas without permission in writing from his employer.

Henry Adams Statement

Source: Excerpt from Senate Report 693, 46th Congress, 2nd Session (1880). Former slave Henry Adams made this statement before the U.S. government in 1880 about the early days of his freedom after the Civil War.

In September I asked the boss to let me go to Shreveport. He said, “All right, when will you come back?” I told him “next week.” He said, “You had better carry a pass.” I said, “I will see whether I am free by going without a pass.”

I met four white men about six miles south of Keachie, De Soto Parish. One of them asked me who I belonged to. I told him no one. So him and two others struck me with a stick and told me they were going to kill me and every other Negro who told them that they did not belong to anyone. One of them who knew me told the others, “Let Henry alone for he is a hard-working nigger and a good nigger.” They left me and I then went on to Shreveport. I seen over twelve colored men and women, beat, shot and hung between there and Shreveport.

Sunday I went back home. The boss was not at home. I asked the madame, “where was the boss?” She says, “Now, the boss; now, the boss! You should say ‘master’ and ‘mistress’ -- and shall or leave. We will not have no nigger here on our place who cannot say ‘mistress’ and ‘master.’ You all are not free yet and will not be until Congress sits, and you shall call every white lady ‘missus’ and every white man ‘master.’”

During the same week the madame takin' a stick and beat one of the young colored girls, who was about fifteen years of age and who is my sister, and split her back. The boss came next day and take this same girl (my sister) and whipped her nearly to death, but in the contracts he was to hit no one any more. After the whipping a large number of young colored people taken a notion to leave. On the 18th of September I and eleven men and boys left that place and started for Shreveport. I had my horse along. My brother was riding him, and all of our things was packed on him. Out come about forty armed men (white) and shot at us and takin' my horse. Said they were going to kill ever' nigger they found leaving their masters….

Report by a Northern White Man

Source: Sydney Andrews, a Northern white man, quoted in the Joint Report on Reconstruction, 1866

In 1865 the United States government created the Freedmen’s Bureau to help former slaves in Southern states. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped people by providing medical supplies, health care and establishing schools. The creation of schools for former slaves was an important part of Reconstruction. Before the Civil War, Southern states outlawed the teaching of reading and writing to slaves.

Many of the negroes in some localities, common plantation negroes, and day laborers in the towns and villages, were supporting little schools themselves. Everywhere, I found among them a disposition to get their children into schools, if possible. I had occasion very frequently to notice that porters in stores and laboring men about cotton warehouses, and cart-drivers on the streets, had spelling-books with them, and were studying them during the time they were not occupied with their work. Go into the outskirts of any large town, and walk among the negro habitations, and you will see the children, and in many instances grown negroes, sitting in the sun alongside their cabins studying.

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