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Alabama's Black Leaders
During Reconstruction

The end of slavery and the Civil War produced a period of jubilee for African Americans in Alabama. Some 439,000 former bondsmen no longer had to toil under an oppressive Alabama sun. Their newfound freedom positioned them much like the state's free black population of antebellum times. Unprecedented freedom of movement allowed former slaves to travel about the countryside. Although some slaves decided to remain on the plantation, others traveled dusty roads in search of relatives or friends or to test their freedom. Whether they remained on the plantation or moved about freely, former slaves held an intense fascination for Alabama's towns.

The postwar years in Alabama were difficult ones. Railroads, one of the state's main forms of transportation, had been destroyed by the war. The state's economy and civil government were in comparable condition. Food supply had suffered, making survival difficult for blacks and whites alike. The times were especially difficult for blacks, since they left slavery with only the clothes on their backs.

Several organizations ventured into Alabama and other parts of the South to mitigate the hardships resulting from the war. The most prominent of these organizations was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually called the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau fostered the growth of medical facilities and schools in Alabama. To meet the medical "needs of the sick, indigent, disabled, and aged of both races," the Bureau established medical facilities in Mobile, Selma, Garland, Montgomery, Demopolis, Huntsville, and Talladega. And, working in conjunction with the Congregationalist American Missionary Association (AMA), Bureau and AMA schools proliferated throughout Alabama.

However, neither the Bureau nor the AMA came to Alabama to train blacks for political leadership roles. Sensing the need for black political participation, the Union League came to Alabama to ensure that African Americans gained the right to vote. The League also sought to use enfranchisement to the advantage of the new Alabama Republican party. The success of the Union League in Alabama coincided with the passage, in 1867, of the First Reconstruction Act. Through a supplementary bill the act authorized military commanders to enroll voters and to supervise an election for a constitutional convention to be held in November 1867.

Through the Union League, blacks in Alabama answered the clarion call to political involvement. One black registrar was Horace King, who had already made a name for himself as a home and bridge builder in the South. With John Godwin, King constructed the first bridge to connect Phenix City, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. Later, as a free man, he built the staircase in the Alabama Capitol.

Enrolling voters for the upcoming constitutional convention, black registrars, the first of their race to hold a state position, assumed their duties with enthusiasm and helped to register 160,991 voters between July 1 and August 20, 1867. In accordance with the Reconstruction Acts, each registrar swore to an iron-clad oath in which he declared his intention to "support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." One black registrar and two white registrars were chosen for each of the state's forty-five registration districts.

With 100 delegates—eighteen blacks, seventy-nine white Republicans and nine white Democrats—the Constitutional Convention of 1867 met in Montgomery on November 5 and adjourned on December 6. Most of the black delegates had been ministers during slavery. Two of them—Holland Thompson of Montgomery and William V. Turner—had attended the First Freedmen's Convention in 1865. Since most of these 1867 delegates had not attended the Second Freedmen's Convention earlier in the year, they were being introduced to politics for the first time. Most of the delegates at the convention of 1867 came from slave backgrounds, even though two had been born free, and three had been emancipated before the war.

The Constitution of 1868 was the first Alabama constitution that African Americans helped draft. Many changes occurred in Alabama because of it. Article 1, Section 22 outlawed imprisonment for nonpayment of debts. Section 35 prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude, and Section 36 guaranteed universal suffrage. A watershed occurred when Article 11 provided for the creation of public education. Article 14 allowed a married female to retain real and personal property belonging to her prior to marriage.

Despite the election of 103 blacks to the state House, state Senate, and U.S. Congress from 1868 to 1884, the convention of 1867 showed that white Republicans held little interest in the welfare of African Americans. They were interested mainly in black voting strength. Therefore, white Republicans refused to aid black members of the party when district lines were being redrawn in order to dilute black voting strength. As James Thomas Rapier and Jeremiah Haralson vied to represent Alabama's fourth district in Congress, they made possible the election of Charles Shelley, a Democrat, and helped to drive the final nail in the coffin of black officeholding in Alabama.

Blacks could no longer turn to the Federal government for redress. Within months of his election, Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew troops from the South, as he had agreed. Southern whites applauded the Hayes strategy. Many black supporters in Congress had died, so blacks could no longer depend on the likes of Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Edwin M. Stanton. To its discredit, the Supreme Court, in its Slaughterhouse cases, limited the rights of blacks to redress. Then in United States v. Reese, the Court declared unconstitutional Sections 3 and 4 of the Enforcement Acts. These acts had been designed to protect African Americans from Klan violence.

On the state and local levels, intimidation by the Klan and economic reprisals further impeded blacks. Black voting and black officeholding disappeared in Alabama. In response to the absence of legal protection and opportunities in Alabama, blacks began to leave the state. In Kansas alone, the number of Alabama-born black residents increased from 168 in 1870 to 854 by 1880.