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States black officeholders after Civil War had impact

States black officeholders after Civil War had impact

NEITHER CARPETBAGGERS NOR SCALAWAGS, Black Officeholders during the Reconstruction of Alabama, 1867-1878, by Richard Bailey. 498 pages. $29.95.

While we generally think of the Civil War ending on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox, Va., when Lee surrendered to Grant, fighting continued in Alabama until May 8, when Confederate Gen. Richard Taylor gave up to Union forces near Citronelle.

When that happened, 439,000 slaves were suddenly freed. In Alabama, a new phase of American history began. The former slaves found themselves looking for food and shelter — the same as many poor whites.

In this self-published work, historian Richard Bailey puts a focus on the role that black elected officials played in the tumult of Reconstruction, but also paints a stark and vivid portrait of life in those troubled times after the gunfire ended and “peace” began.

He tells of hundreds of blacks leavings plantations to be free only to find themselves shackled by cold and hunger. Many, living in fields and in small huts, froze to death in the bitterly cold winter of 1865-66.

Before long, many found themselves back on plantations, working for meager wages or shares, paid after deductions for food, lodging, etc. White resistance to blacks voting and seeking office resulted in full-scale violence, often led by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Eufaula, 800 blacks marched into town to take part in an election. Gunfire erupted. When it ended, several whites were wounded, but 100 blacks were wounded and killed. Yet, in the days to come, more than 300 black men were elected to various offices in the state, and at Selma, a black man was hired to be a member of the police force.

Bailey, in his preface, states that the work is in part a response to earlier accounts in which the violence and social upheaval of Reconstruction is blamed in large part on black office holders, who won office running under the banner of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln.

In the back of the book, Bailey provides a list of the officeholders, giving their status prior to the Civil War, their age, what office they held, where they were from, and other data. Researchers will find this chart alone a vital and valuable tool.

The officeholders include John Carraway of Mobile county, who had served in the Civil War with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an all black unit. As a member of the Alabama Legislature, Carraway lost a battle to eliminate discriminatory practices in transportation. As a private in the Army he had written a ballad that depicted life for black soldiers, called “Colored Volunteers.”

In the end, blacks who won offices in Alabama began to lose them as quickly as they had been gained, and within a dozen years of freedom, few held elected posts. By the end of the 1870s, none did.

Bailey says many factors led to the demise of blacks in political office in Alabama during that stormy period in Alabama.

“The African-American members of the party were confronted with insurmountable obstacles and uncompromising opposition. Therefore, whatever one says or writes about them one should note that they were men of vision. Because of these men, a semblance of leadership emerged…. These men helped to establish black education and helped black education to grow…”

Frank Sikora

Originally Published: The Birmingham News, Sunday, 21 July 1991, 4F

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