Black Reconstruction

From Anarchy In Action

During the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate General Albert Pike warned that black suffrage would create “a hell on earth, a hideous, horrid pandemonium filled with all the devils of vice, crime, pauperism, corruption, violence, political debauchery, social anarchy.”[1] Pike was correct in one sense, although not in the way he intended; the extension of liberty to African Americans did foster an atmosphere of “social anarchy.” From strikes and mutual aid societies, to squatting empty plots and seizing land from former masters; from the assertion of community control over churches and education, to the enactment of economic and political reforms even more radical than those of the Paris Commune; the movement of post-Civil War Reconstruction represented a radical democratization of society that has gone unrecognized by many Anarchists.

Black Reconstruction disrupted one of history's most hierarchical societies—that of the Southern U.S. slavery—and began replacing it with a society that threatened the foundations of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Reconstruction could be viewed as a social revolution with an anti-authoritarian wing that was thwarted by a counter-revolution and a lack of solidarity from leftists in the U.S. North.

The South Carolinian Thomas Miller later described the achievements of Reconstruction: "We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the jails and courthouses, rebuilt the bridge and reestablished the ferries."[2]

The Anarchist political scientist Joel Olson insisted:

"The ignorance of Black freedom movements is so profound that even anachistic tendencies within them get ignored...The Black-led Reconstruction government in South Carolina from 1868-1874, which Du Bois dubbed the 'South Carolina Commune,' did far more toward building socialism than the Paris Commune in 1871 ever did."[3]


Civil War

A turning point in the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) over slavery was, according to the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a "general strike" of enslaved people who ran away from their masters in the South and joined the Northern (anti-slavery) side in the war. This strike "decided the war" in the North's favor" according to Du Bois.[4] In total, some half a million slaves fled their masters.[5]

The historian Thavolia Glymph notes that while Du Bois focused on the role of black men in this general strike, women were major participants too. Enslaved women, such as one named Rose took up arms against the Southern Confederacy. She was executed by her enemies.[6] Other times, The women who supported the Northern Union army did not always get favorable treatment from the Union soldiers. For example, an enslaved cook who welcomed invading Union forces found herself unrewarded for feeding the soldiers her mistress’s finest meats and foods for three weeks. When the mistress asked a Union guard for protection from the subversive slave, the guard shot the cook dead. “In the end, a member of the army of deliverance in which the slave woman had placed her faith had committed to protecting a woman whose husband was in the enemy’s army.”[7]

"For the duration of the Civil War," writes Kevin van Meter, "slaves launched insurrections, sabotaged farm implements, set storehouses ablaze, and fled to join the Union Army. Escaped slaves based in maroon communities waged guerilla warfare."[8]

Reconstruction Act

After the war, the 1867 Reconstruction Act divided the country's South into five military districts. For the following twelve years, blacks secured the right to vote and took high positions in political office across the South. The most extensive reconstruction occurred in South Carolina, where blacks captured control of the state legislature. Due to a rise in white supremacist terrorism and the withdrawal of federal troops, Reconstruction collapsed in 1877, leading to the rise of Jim Crow. Blacks continued to use some of the same Reconstruction-era direct action tactics in subsequent struggles for freedom.

Radical anti-capitalist visions

Black demands for liberty struck against the heart of American capitalism. By 1820, cotton had become “the dominant driver of US economic growth,” explains Edward Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told. In the next two decades, cotton jumped from 14 percent to 42 percent of total US exports. The rise in cotton production occurred mainly as the result of the “pushing system” under slavery; slave-drivers would continually push slaves harder and harder until they picked precisely as much cotton as they could. A slave who did not meet their quota was whipped. A slave who picked above their quota was given a new quota. Productivity per slave increased by almost 400 percent from 1819 to 1860. At the dawn of the Civil War, slavery remained central to the growth of the US economy.[9] Defenders of slavery insisted slavery was so important to the economy that nonviolent tactics could not possibly abolish the institution: James Hammond, a supporter of slavery, said in 1845:

But if your course was wholly different—If you distilled nectar from your lips and discoursed sweetest you imagine you could prevail on us to give up a thousand millions of dollars in the value of our slaves and a thousand millions of dollars more in the depreciation of our lands...[10]

The capitalists' extraordinary measures to re-impose slave-like conditions on freed African Americans after the Civil War show the importance of white supremacy to capitalism. In one scheme, the convict lease system, states leased prisoners to work in the mines, railroads, and timber industry. The prisoners were often treated worse than slaves, since the temporary employers had no incentive to keep the workers alive and healthy for the long term. Many prisoners in the convict lease system “died of abuse and disease.”[11]

Many African Americans in the Reconstruction era wanted more than nominal emancipation; they wanted to enjoy freedom at its fullest, and this yearning led them to develop radical, anti-capitalist visions. According to Du Bois, South Carolina's black residents consciously desired “to rid themselves of the dominion of private capital.”[12] Although Du Bois says that black South Carolinians wanted to themselves own capital, he meant by this merely household ownership of land. By and large, according to Tera Hunter, African Americans' goal was self-sufficiency.[13] Although they did not seem to oppose the market, the radical economic vision was consistent with individualist and mutualist varieties of anarchism.[14] At South Carolina's constitutional convention, the black delegate R.C. Delarge called for the government to buy land and distribute it to landless black families.[15] According to Tera Hunter, freedom to Reconstruction-era blacks “meant the reestablishment of lost family connections, the achievement of liberty, the exercise of political rights, and the security of a decent livelihood without the sacrifice of human dignity or self-determination.”[16] In the context of a capitalist system trying to reimpose slavery-like conditions, these could be interpreted as revolutionary demands to restructure the economy: for the expropriation and redistribution of property, and for a system capable of offering dignity and autonomy to the country's most oppressed class of workers.

In South Carolina, black residents came closest to building the society they envisioned. Their government implemented reforms much more radical than those of the explicitly revolutionary Paris Commune. Comparing South Carolina to the Paris Commune, Noel Ignatiev discusses the “South Carolina Commune,” and Joel Olson attributes the term to W.E.B. Du Bois.[17] While some in Paris talked about building a public education system, Reconstruction South Carolina actually created such a system. Reconstruction South Carolina provided health care assistance, built institutions for the deaf and insane, and distributed land to over 14,000 black families. A century ahead of its time, the South Carolina government took the radical step of banning racial discrimination in public places, although this law was not often enforced.[18] Outside of South Carolina, Reconstruction achieved significant though less radical reforms, including health care programs and eliminating corporal punishment for many crimes. Before Reconstruction, public education did not exist in the South except for a poorly-funded system in North Carolina. By the end of Reconstruction, southern governments had built 100 schools, including 16 colleges, with over 12,000 students.[19]

These reforms, however groundbreaking, did not encompass the full vision of Reconstruction. Ongoing struggles for justice indicated that the governments' reforms represented a moderate compromise of the grassroots' vision, including in South Carolina. In 1865, hundreds of blacks in South Carolina refused to pay taxes to the state government.[20] In 1876, farm workers in Colleton County, South Carolina went on strike and threatened to destroy planters' crops. In the state's Buford County, 200 black rice farmers went on strike, locked scabs in outhouses, “overpowered a sheriff and his posse”.[21] Hine, Hine and Harold discuss how radical black leaders were held back by both white politicians and moderate black politicians. Black leaders, they write, “often disagreed among themselves about issues and programs. Class and prewar status frequently divided them. Those leaders who had not been slaves and had not been raised in rural isolation were less likely to be concerned with land and agricultural labor.”[22]

The radical black Reconstruction vision included community control. For the first time, Southern blacks controlled their own churches and schools. Before the Civil War, whites ran all Southern churches, and enslaved and free blacks had to sit in the back rows. When the black population was large enough, a church with an all-black congregation would be established, but the pastor was always white. By contrast, Reconstruction-era blacks formed their own churches, and by the end of Reconstruction the vast majority of blacks had left white-controlled churches.[23] Blacks asserted control over the school system and made their communities' education explicitly liberatory. In Georgia, for example, African Americans successfully lobbied to change the name of the education department to the Georgia Equal Rights and Educational Association.[24] Records from a school in Kentucky show teachers encouraging students to think for themselves and explore radical social ideas:

TEACHER: Now children, you don't think white people are any better than you because they have straight hair and white faces?

STUDENTS: No, sir.

TEACHER: No, they are no better, but they are different, they possess great power, they formed this great government, they control this vast country...Now what makes them different from you?

STUDENTS: Money! TEACHER: Yes, but what enabled them to obtain it? How did they get money?

STUDENTS: Got it off us, stole it of we all![25]

Direct action movement

So far, it has been argued that Reconstruction challenged the white supremacist foundations of American society, had an anti-capitalist vision, and achieved significant reforms that moved society toward that vision. For such reasons, Du Bois considered Reconstruction a “revolution comparable to the upheavals in France in the past, and in Russia, Spain, India, and China today.”[26]

However, Du Bois overemphasizes the role of government. The election of black politicians, while significant, was a mere piece of Reconstruction, which was predominantly a direct action movement. Alfred Grey, a black, property-less legislator and militia member in Alabama's Tallapoosa County called for an armed uprising on 3 February 1868, the eve of elections:

[Am] I afraid to fight the white man for my rights? No! I may go to hell, my home is hell, but the white man shall go there with me...And every one come in and bring your guns and stand up for your rights! Let them talk of social equality, mixed schools, and a war of races. We'll fight until we die, and go together, or we'll carry this constitution.[27]

As Noel Ignatiev remarks, such a speech by a landless legislator signifies “that we are no longer talking about a bourgeois parliament.”[28]

Nowhere did blacks fully control the state governments. Even in South Carolina, where blacks achieved the greatest degree of state power, “most of the administrative power was in the hands of whites”.[29] Whites dominated Southern police forces, and police could often be found among the ranks of the Klu Klux Klan. Police led white mobs in four days of violence and burning houses, churches, and schools in Memphis, 1866. Forty-six blacks and two whites died. In a study of the Reconstruction-era South, Melinda Hennessey found that police led one-third of the South's riots, and in only three cases did the police try to stop the riots.[30] For African Americans, self defense provided better protection than the police did. The Klan “was rarely active where black people were in a majority and prepared to defend themselves. In the case of white supremacy, the Klan usually attacked those who could not defend themselves.”[31]

The government never carried out General William Tecumseh Sherman's Field Order Number 15, which promised to expropriate 400,000 acres and distribute 40-acre parcels to black families. Unable to rely on the government, blacks themselves seized land. In some cases, they expropriated land from their former masters' estates, although they usually did not get to keep this land very long. In other cases, they occupied unused or abandoned land. Elsewhere, blacks pooled money together and collectively bought farms.[32]

Reconstruction-era African Americans created thousands of mutual aid groups, such as burial societies, debating clubs, drama societies, and trade associations.[33] The establishment of these groups constituted a form of direct action; in each case communities decided to directly and collectively improve their own lives. In Atlanta, blacks pooled together funds and built a hospital.[34] Eric Foner writes that these groups offered blacks “social fellowship, sickness and funeral benefits, and, most of all, a chance to manage their own affairs.”[35] Often, mutual aid did not require formal organization; people simply helped out their friends and family. Writing from Milton, Florida in 1867, Dave Waldrop offered to take care of his cousin Sarah and her children. “Dear cousin, I received word last week that you wer not doing very well in Montgomery and that times wer very hard there,” the letter began.[36]

In the urban South, black women wage workers quit demeaning jobs, stole table scraps, stole breaks, feigned illnesses, went on strike, and formed cooperative networks encompassing “neighborhoods, families, churches, mutual aid organizations, dance halls, and vaudeville theaters.”[37] In Atlanta, female workers quit jobs that paid too little or had too many hours. Quitting, the historian Tera Hunter observes, “was an effective strategy to deprive employers of complete power over their labor.”[38] In other cases, strikes were larger and more coordinated. In Jackson in 1866, black female laundry workers went on strike, demanding a higher wage. The outcome of the strike is unknown. The same year, in Galveston, black women went on strike against unfair pay and confinement to household work. It is unclear how many strikers achieved their demands by the time the strike faded out.[39]

Contradictions and Lessons

Of the many contradictions and limitations of Reconstruction, a main one involved a clash between the movement's transformative vision and its reliance on protection from a very conservative federal government. In the end, the government betrayed southern blacks. President Andrew Johnson “vetoed bills to help Negroes; he made it easy for Confederate states to come back into the Union without guaranteeing equal rights to blacks.”[40] With the Compromise of 1877, the US withdrew troops from the South, and Reconstruction collapsed.

A second contradiction was that Reconstruction's vision of liberation sometimes stopped short of liberating women. According to Eric Foner, “black preachers, editors, and politicians emphasized women's responsibility for making the home 'a place of peace and comfort' for men and urged them to submit to their husband's authority...The records of the Freedmen's Bureau contain hundreds of complaints by black women of beatings, infidelity, and lack of child support.”[41] A third contradiction involved the criminal justice system. While Reconstruction governments relaxed punishments for many crimes, they also built new prisons even as the institution put many blacks back into slave-like conditions in the convict lease system.

These limitations, it may be argued, should not have precluded revolutionary solidarity from anarchists and other leftists. The culture of Reconstruction had patriarchal aspects, but the movement also had powerful women leaders, including South Carolina's Rollins sisters who worked with Republican politicians while advocating women's suffrage.[42] Reconstruction relied on military assistance from the federal government, but government involvement has not stopped anarchists from supporting various movements. Anarchists today support the anti-authoritarian Kurdish groups of Rojava (western Kurdistan) despite the fact that these groups have received military assistance from the United States. Ecological anarchists tend to support acts by the federal government to enforce environmental regulations. An insistence on purity could make one easily miss the revolutionary promise of not just Reconstruction but any movement.

There is no one reason why Reconstruction collapsed, but a lack of solidarity from Northern leftists was a factor. “Apparently, American Internationalists were able to look across the ocean to the Paris Commune, but could not cast their eyes southward to the South Carolina Commune,” writes Noel Ignatiev.[43] This lack of solidarity is a recurring theme in anarchist and leftist politics: the failure of urban Mexican anarchists to unite with Zapatista peasants in the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the failure of Spanish anarchists to unite with Moroccans in the 1936 Spanish Revolution, the Israeli kibbutzim's alignment with Zionist colonizers over Palestinian resisters are a few examples. Perhaps things are changing today with Anarchists joining Black Lives Matter protesters, themselves often horizontally-organized, decentralized and radically critical of the existing society.

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 449.
  2. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 428.
  3. Joel Olson, “Between infoshops and insurrection: US anarchism, movement building, and the racial order,”
  4. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 57.
  5. Thavolia Glymph, “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Slave Women’s War for Freedom,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2013): 491.
  6. Thavolia Glymph, “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Slave Women’s War for Freedom,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2013): 491, 497.
  7. Glymph, “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction,” 499-500.
  8. Keven van Meter, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Oakland: AK Press, 2017), 68.
  9. Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic Books: 2014).
  10. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial), 174.
  11. Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African-American Odyssey (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2014), 364.
  12. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 313.
  13. Tera Hunter, To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), viii.
  14. “What Types of Anarchism Are There?” in An Anarchist FAQ,
  15. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 322.
  16. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom, 43.
  17. Noel Ignatiev, “'The American Blindspot': Reconstruction According to Eric Foner and W.E.B. Du Bois,” Labour/Le Travail, 31 (Spring 1993), 243-51. Olson, “Between infoshops and insurrection”.
  18. Hine, Hine, and Harrold, African-American Odyssey, 317-318.
  19. Du Bois Black Reconstruction, 545.
  20. Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction 1863-1877 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990), 124.
  21. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 342.
  22. Hine, Hine, and Harrold, African-American Odyssey, 320.
  23. Foner, Short History, 40.
  24. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom, 41.
  25. Zinn, People's History, 202.
  26. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 579.
  27. Ignatiev, “American Blindspot,” 246.
  28. ibid.
  29. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 338.
  30. Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007), 78-9.
  31. Hine, Hine, and Harrold, 324.
  32. Foner, Short History, 46-7.
  33. Foner, Short History, 42.
  34. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom, 24.
  35. Foner, Short History, 42.
  36. “Dave Waldrop, a Florida Freedman, Seeks to Unite his Family,” 1867.
  37. Tera W. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) , viii.
  38. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom, 28.
  39. Hunter, To Joy My Freedom, 74-82.
  40. Zinn, People's History, 199.
  41. Foner, Short History, 40.
  42. Hine, Hine, and Harrold, African-American Odyssey, 321.
  43. Ignatiev, “American Blindspot,” 249.