July 8th, 1860

The Last Slave Ship Docks in Mobile, Alabama

On July 8, 1860, more than 50 years after Congress banned the importation of slaves into the United States, the Clotilde, a slave ship under the command of Captain William Foster, arrived in Mobile, Alabama, carrying more than 100 enslaved Africans from Ghana. Captain Foster was alleged to be working for Timothy Meaher, a Mobile shipyard owner who built the Clotilde.

Captain Foster evaded capture by federal authorities by transferring the enslaved Africans to a riverboat and burning and then sinking the Clotilde. The Africans smuggled in on the ship were subsequently distributed to those who financed the voyage, with Meaher retaining more than 30 of the Africans on Magazine Point, his property north of Mobile, Alabama. In 1861, Meaher and his partners were prosecuted for illegally importing enslaved Africans into the country but a federal court dismissed the case, citing insufficient evidence to prove that Meaher participated in the scheme.

While the government was investigating Meaher, the Africans who had been taken to his property were left to fend for themselves and provided no means of returning to Ghana. Those men and women settled along the outskirts of Meaher’s property, at a site that came to be known as “Africatown.” Many descendants of those stolen people continue to live in northern Mobile; in 1997, a group of them formed the Africatown Community Mobilization Project to seek recognition of an Africatown Historical District and encourage the restoration and development of the town. In December 2012, the National Park Service added the Africatown Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places.


April 12th, 1861

The Battle of Fort Sumter: Beginning of the Civil War

In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. As more states followed suit and the Confederacy took shape, many federal installations in the South were taken over by state governments. Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, continued to fly the United States flag, even as Confederate forces surrounded it.

On April 10, 1861, Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, in command of the provisional Confederate forces at Charleston, South Carolina, demanded Fort Sumter's surrender. Union commander Major Robert Anderson refused. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops opened fire on the fort. On April 13, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter and evacuated the following day. The bombardment of Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War.

The firing on the fort was the culmination of an emerging conflict in which a small garrison of Union troops in South Carolina found themselves isolated when the state seceded from the Union. The firing on Fort Sumter lasted less than two days and had no great tactical significance, but the symbolism was enormous for both sides. Once Fort Sumter was fired upon, the North and South were officially at war.


December 16th, 1862

Dakota Men Hanged in the One of the Largest Mass Executions in United States History

On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged on a giant scaffolding in Mankato, Minnesota. President Abraham Lincoln ordered the executions following the Dakota War of 1862, a six-week Dakota uprising against white settlers after the United States broke its promise to deliver food and supplies to local tribes in exchange for surrender of tribal land. Commenting on the starving Native Americans, a white trader named Andrew Myrick said, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

Following the uprising, 2000 Dakota were captured and several hundred were sentenced to death. President Lincoln pardoned all but 38 men. An onlooker wrote about the execution in the St. Paul Pioneer:

“They still kept up a mournful wall, and occasionally there would be a piercing scream. The ropes were soon arranged around their necks, not the least resistance being offered…. Then ensued a scene that can hardly be described, and which can never be forgotten. All joined in shouting and singing, as it appeared to those who were ignorant of the language. The tones seemed somewhat discordant, and yet there was harmony in it….

The most touching scene on the drop was their attempts to grasp each other’s hands, fettered as they were. They were very close together, as many succeeded. Three or four in a row were hand in hand, and all hands swaying up and down with the rise and fall of their voices…We were informed by those who understood the language that their singing and shouting was only to sustain each other; that there was nothing defiant in their last moments, and that no ‘death-song,’ strictly speaking, was shouted on the gallows. Each one shouted his own name, and called on the name of his friend, saying, in substance, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’”


January 1st, 1863

President Lincoln Signs the Emancipation Proclamation

Slavery was not abolished by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation applied only to enslaved people in states that were in rebellion in 1863, namely South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina. It exempted Tennessee and portions of Virginia and Louisiana that were occupied by the Union and left slavery untouched in the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri.

Exercising his powers as commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation primarily as a wartime measure. Key provisions allowing for the service of former slaves in the Union Army and Navy opened the door to the gradual enlistment of almost 200,000 black men.

Slavery would not become illegal until the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified on December 6, 1865. Many Southern states resisted ratification even after the Civil War. Delaware and Kentucky rejected ratification and slavery persisted in those states for several more years before the practice ceased. Mississippi did not officially ratify the amendment until 130 years later, in 1995.


May 1st, 1863

Confederate Congress Authorizes Enslavement or Execution of Black Troops

On December 24, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued orders to the Confederate Army "that all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong, to be dealt with according to the law of said States." A joint resolution adopted by the Confederate Congress and signed by Mr. Davis on May 1, 1863, adjusted this policy to provide that all "negroes or mulattoes, slave or free, taken in arms should be turned over to the authorities in the state in which they were captured and that their officers would be tried by Confederate military tribunals for inciting insurrection and be subject, at the discretion of the court and the president, to the death penalty."

The treatment of African Americans in Confederate custody varied, depending on location and the capturing commander but atrocities committed against black troops during the Civil War, such as the massacre of surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, have been well documented.


July 13th, 1863

1000 Killed or Injured in New York City Draft Riots

On July 13, 1863, poor white laborers in New York City rioted in protest of the Union draft and a law exempting from the draft all blacks and men able to pay $300 or hire substitutes. Many working class whites already believed the Civil War sacrificed white lives to free black men; the draft law reinforced that belief and reminded poor whites of their precarious social and economic position. The law also signified blacks’ growing political power and the impending exodus of black freedmen to the North. Poor white Northerners feared that exodus would lead to more competition for already scarce jobs and force them into even closer contact with blacks.

On July 11, 1863, the draft began without incident. Two days later, the draft resumed but was quickly disrupted by a mob of working class whites launching a first round of attacks directed at military and government officials. The mob burned down the draft office and beat Police Superintendent John Kennedy nearly to death. As the crowd grew in number and anti-black sentiment, it set its sights on an orphanage for black children. The rioters, which now included women and children, raided the orphanage, taking anything of value and then setting it ablaze. Despite police efforts to extinguish the flames, the orphanage burned to the ground. The mob grew to thousands of angry, violent whites who attacked any black person or business in their path.

By the end of the riots, which by some accounts lasted for several days, more than a thousand people had been killed or injured, most of them black. At least eleven black men were hung and countless homes and businesses were destroyed.


July 18th, 1863

Black Union Soldiers Lead Attack on Confederate Troops at Fort Wagner

In February 1863, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew issued the Civil War’s first enlistment call for black soldiers. More than 1000 men from Massachusetts and other states volunteered to serve, including Frederick Douglass’s sons, Charles and Lewis. Governor Andrew selected Colonel Robert Shaw, a young white officer, to lead the nation’s first black infantry unit.

From the outset, the men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry were treated differently than their white counterparts, receiving $7 less weekly pay than white soldiers. It is reported that, as a protest against this inequity, the entire infantry refused to accept any pay until black soldiers received the same wages as white soldiers. Wage inequities between black and white soldiers persisted for the duration of the Civil War.

On July 18, 1863, the 54th prepared to storm South Carolina’s Fort Wagner, which guarded the Port of Charleston. Colonel Shaw assembled 600 soldiers, waited just outside Fort Wagner’s fortified walls, and led the men over the walls at nightfall. Colonel Shaw and the Union generals had underestimated the number of Confederate soldiers waiting inside the fort, and the men of the 54th were outnumbered and outgunned. More than 200 Union soldiers, including Colonel Shaw, were killed. As a sign of disrespect, Confederate soldiers unceremoniously dumped the fallen soldiers' bodies in a single unmarked grave.

Despite the Union’s loss at Fort Wagner, Confederate troops abandoned the site soon after the battle. The 54th Massachusetts Infantry continued to fight for the Union and participated in a series of successful military operations in Georgia and South Carolina before the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.


February 24th, 1865

Slavery in Border-State Kentucky

Kentucky, a border state, remained in the Union but the state's legislature did not fully support President Abraham Lincoln or his Republican administration because lawmakers worried that Lincoln would abolish slavery. Throughout 1861, Lincoln assured Kentuckians he had no intention of interfering with the state's "domestic institutions." In March 1862, Lincoln proposed a plan of gradual emancipation for the border states, offering to compensate slaveholders who released their slaves. When the congressional delegations for the border states turned down that offer, Lincoln issued a draft Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and signed the final version on January 1, 1863.

Kentucky legislators opposed all efforts to abolish slavery, and on February 24, 1865, the Kentucky General Assembly rejected the Thirteenth Amendment. Prominent politicians and other public figures harshly criticized President Lincoln and members of Congress, and the Kentucky legislature expressed their disapproval of the amendment's adoption by politically siding with the former Confederacy throughout the post-Civil War era. Kentucky did not officially adopt the Thirteenth Amendment until 1976.


April 9th, 1865

Lee Surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Court House

On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his approximately 28,000 troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in the front parlor of Wilmer McLean's home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Less than a week earlier, General Lee had abandoned the Confederate capital of Richmond and the city of Petersburg in Virginia, hoping to escape with the remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia, meet up with additional Confederate forces in North Carolina, and resume fighting. When Union forces cut off his final retreat, General Lee was forced to surrender.

Retreating from the Union Army's Appomattox campaign, which began in late March 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia had stumbled through the Virginia countryside stripped of food and supplies. At one point, Union cavalry forces under General Philip Sheridan had outrun Lee's army, blocking their retreat and taking 6000 prisoners at Sayler's Creek. Desertions were mounting daily and by April 8 the Confederates were surrounded with no possibility of escape. On April 9, General Lee sent a message to General Grant announcing his willingness to surrender. Their afternoon meeting ended a war that had lasted four years and killed more than 600,000 Americans.


November 22nd, 1865

Mississippi Authorizes “Sale” of Black Orphans

After the physical and economic devastation of the Civil War, Southern states faced the daunting task of rebuilding with the young white male population drastically reduced by war-time casualties and, due to emancipation, without the enslaved black labor supply on which the entire region had been built. In response, some Southern state legislatures passed race-specific laws to establish new forms of labor relations between black workers and white “employers” that ostensibly complied with the letter of the law while re-creating the involuntary, master-slave relationship.

The Mississippi legislature on November 22, 1865, passed “An Act to regulate the relation of master and apprentice, as relates to freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes.” Under the law, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other county civil officers were authorized and required to identify all minor black children in their jurisdictions who were orphans or whose parents could not properly care for them. Once identified, the local probate court was required to “apprentice” black children to white “masters or mistresses” until age 18 for girls and age 21 for boys.

Though not required to pay a wage to the children, whites were required to pay a fee to the county for the apprentice arrangement and the children’s former owners were to be given preference. The law purportedly required white “masters” to provide their apprentices with education, medical care, food, and clothing but also re-established many of the more notorious features of slavery, including authorizing white masters to “re-capture” any apprentice who left their employment without consent, and threatened children with criminal punishment for refusing to return to work.


November 24th, 1865

Mississippi Criminalizes Unemployment and Assembly by Free Blacks

Shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Southern states sought to control and confine their large populations of newly-freed black people by passing laws that authorized their arrest and incarceration. These laws, known as “black codes,” typically applied only to black people and criminalized acts that were not offenses at all when committed by whites.

In November and December 1865, the Mississippi legislature approved numerous black codes. One passed on November 24, 1865, declared that “all freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes” found without proof of employment or business or found “unlawfully assembling themselves” would be deemed vagrants and, upon conviction, owe up to $50 in fines and serve up to ten days in jail. The same law threatened whites with vagrancy convictions if found assembling or associating with freedmen “on terms of equality" or found “living in adultery” with a black partner. If convicted, whites faced up to $200 in fines and up to six months in jail.

As a result of black codes like these in Mississippi, and similar laws passed during the same period in states throughout the South, the post-Civil War era brought American black people more contact with the criminal court and prison systems than ever before. As the former Confederacy learned to wield the criminal justice system as a tool of racial control, countless black men, women, and children were convicted and sentenced under unjust laws that criminalized them for existing as free, black citizens.


December 18th, 1865

Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment is Announced

A constitutional amendment to forever abolish slavery was first proposed in the United States Congress in December 1863, during the Civil War and just months after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared enslaved black people in rebelling states free. Though the proclamation was a war measure that the government had little ability to enforce because it applied only in states that had declared themselves a separate nation, an emancipation amendment would concretely establish slavery as contrary to the foundational principles of the United States. The Senate passed the abolition amendment on April 8, 1864. After an initial vote against it, months of debate and negotiations, and President Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the House passed the amendment on January 31, 1865.

Before the amendment could be added to the Constitution, two-thirds of the states - 27 out of the then-total 36 - had to ratify it. Northern states quickly did so. Many Southern states were reluctant but slowly joined suit after the April 1865 Confederate surrender and the passage of federal legislation that conditioned readmission to the Union on ratification of the amendment. On December 6, 1865, Georgia became the 27th state to approve ratification. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward announced that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had been officially approved.

The amendment’s text prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for crime, and that exception has proven a dangerous loophole. Many Southern states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries passed laws authorizing the “leasing” of (predominately black) state prisoners, who worked for no pay, in inhumane and deadly conditions, often while serving unjust sentences. As recently as 2010, in Serra v. Lappin, a federal court cited the Thirteenth Amendment in rejecting a lawsuit filed by federal prisoners, holding that “prisoners have no enforceable right to be paid for their work under the Constitution.”


December 19th, 1865

South Carolina Requires Blacks to Enter into Contracts with White "Masters"

Following the Civil War and emancipation, many freed black people in the South remained beholden to their former white masters. In South Carolina and other former slaveholding states, many freed people continued to reside in the same communities, sometimes on the same land, working for whites who had previously purported to own the men, women, and children as property. Freedmen had limited opportunities to earn money to support themselves and their families and often continued to work as manual laborers in slavery-like conditions. In many ways, “black codes” enacted following emancipation sought to maintain white control over freedmen and perpetuated the exploitation black people had experienced during slavery.

South Carolina's black codes, like others, contained many laws that applied only to black people. One measure restored freed blacks' subservient social relationship to white landowners, stating that “all persons of color who make contracts for service or labor, shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract, shall be known as masters.” The law required black “servants” to work from dawn to dusk and to maintain a “polite” demeanor. South Carolina reached even further into black laborers’ personal lives, prohibiting apprentices to marry without their masters’ permission, forbidding farmers living on their masters’ land to have visitors, and imposing a curfew. Another black code sought to restrict the upward mobility of the black community by forbidding freedmen in South Carolina from pursuing any occupation other than laborer unless able to pay a $100 fee.


December 24th, 1865

Confederate Veterans Establish the Ku Klux Klan

On December 24, 1865, a group of former Confederate soldiers established what would become the first chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, in Pulaski, Tennessee. Named for the Greek word “kyklos,” which means circle, the KKK became America’s first domestic terrorist group and was devoted to white supremacy and to ending Reconstruction in the South. The Klan’s first leader, called a Grand Wizard, was former Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

During Reconstruction, the KKK's political activity was closely tied to the goals of Southern Democrats. To support this agenda, the Klan engaged in a campaign of terror, violence, and murder, targeting African Americans as well as whites who supported Republican policies. Writing in 1935, black scholar W.E.B. DuBois described Klan attacks as “armed guerilla warfare,” and estimated that, between 1866 and mid-1867, the KKK was responsible for 197 murders and 548 aggravated assaults in North and South Carolina alone. Reconstruction-era KKK terror went largely unopposed by local authorities. In 1871, the United States Congress passed the Force Bill, which allowed for prosecution of Klan members in federal court and dramatically slowed Klan activity. By the early 1870s, the Klan had all but disappeared.

The KKK underwent a massive resurgence in the first few decades of the 20th century, due in large part to the film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the group’s 19th-century activities. In the first half of the 20th century, Klan membership became a core qualification for public office in Southern states. Many influential national figures were Klansmen at some point in their lives, including Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) and former United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. The Klan persists today but is estimated to have only about 3000 active members, down from a high of more than 2,000,000 members in the 1920s.


February 2nd, 1866

Frederick Douglass Calls for Voting Rights

Andrew Johnson became the Seventeenth President of the United States on April 15, 1865, following Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Through a series of executive actions, Johnson mounted an immediate effort to restore Confederate loyalists to power in the Southern states. One of Johnson's first moves was to grant amnesty to thousands of former Confederate soldiers, reinstating their rights to vote and hold office.

Although Johnson had voiced moderate support for African American voting rights, none of his early decrees granted them. In fact, before white audiences and on public platforms, Johnson spouted views of white supremacy as president. In a letter to Missouri Governor Thomas Fletcher, Johnson described the United States as "a country for white men, and as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men."

Radical Republicans and African American leaders fiercely fought President Johnson, Democrats, and conservative Republicans on key Reconstruction issues, such as black voting rights, education for freedmen, and land allocation. Joined by his son and several other activists, Frederick Douglass met with President Johnson on February 2, 1866, to advocate for black voting rights. Johnson remained committed to ensuring white control of Southern governments and undermining efforts to secure African Americans' voting rights. By the tense meeting's end, Johnson had further damaged his standing with Northern states and Radical Republicans.

Four years later, on February 3, 1870, Johnson and his supporters lost their fight when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights.


July 30th, 1866

White Mob Attacks Blacks at Voting Rights Convention in New Orleans

Like most other cities in the South, New Orleans, Louisiana, experienced social turmoil following the Civil War as black citizens gained greater political and economic standing in a state that had not been willing to grant it voluntarily. The Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1864 had granted black people some citizenship rights, but denied them the right to vote. In 1865, Louisiana joined other Southern states in enacting “black codes” to disenfranchise black people, greatly angering Radical Republicans who supported full citizenship rights for black people.

On July 30, 1866, Radical Republicans in the state reconvened the Louisiana Constitutional Convention in an attempt to seize control of the state government. The new convention had many black supporters, including 200 Union Army veterans, who had attended speeches by abolitionists and Radical Republicans a few days earlier. The speakers encouraged blacks to march upon the grounds of the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans to show solidarity with the convention.

After recessing at mid-day on July 30, convention members leaving the meeting were greeted by black marchers. Across the street from the Mechanics Institute, a group of armed white men gathered to confront both marchers and convention delegates. The white mob, which included many Confederate war veterans, was convinced that the Radical Republicans sought to disenfranchise whites while enfranchising blacks. The mob attacked marchers and Radical Republicans, who were unprepared to fight and were chased into the Mechanics Institute. In the ensuing violence, 35 black marchers and three white Radical Republicans were killed and about 100 black marchers were injured.


October 26th, 1866

Texas Bars Black People From Testifying in Some Court Proceedings

Prior to the Civil War, many Southern states, including Texas, barred enslaved or free black people from testifying against white people in court proceedings. Following the Confederacy’s defeat, those states were forced to comply with requirements created by the Republican-controlled Congress in order to be readmitted to the Union, including altering their laws and state constitutions to respect black Americans’ new status as citizens with civil rights.

On October 26, 1866, the Texas legislature passed a law redefining the circumstances in which blacks could testify in court. Rather than simply establish that black people would have full and equal rights to testify, Texas lawmakers crafted a statute that provided that “persons of color shall not testify” except in cases where “the prosecution is against a person who is a person of color; or where the offense is charged to have been committed against the person or property of a person of color.”

In civil cases between white parties and in criminal prosecutions of white people not charged with offenses against a black person, black people remained second-class citizens with no right to air their grievances in a court of law. In addition, even in the cases in which black witnesses were permitted to speak, few could have much faith in the promise of equal justice -- a court system that limited rights based on the color of one’s skin also was likely to judge credibility by those same terms.


November 9th, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing of County Jail Inmates for Profit

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in December 1865, was then and is still frequently celebrated as the legislative act that ended American slavery. However, the amendment’s text includes an exception:

"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."

In Southern states that had long relied on the system of slavery to provide a constant labor supply for performing the agricultural work on which the region’s economy was based and to buttress the social and political system of white supremacy, emancipation turned the system upside down. The constitutional provision permitting the continued enslavement of convicted criminals, however, provided a means of continued labor exploitation, and many states took it. In addition to passing “black codes” that criminalized acts like unemployment and public assembly when committed by freedmen, many Southern states also passed laws authorizing the leasing of the larger, predominately black convict populations these statutes created. Rather than create a financial burden for the state, increased prison populations could create profit.

In Texas, a law entitled “An Act to provide for the employment of Convicts for petty offenses” was approved on November 9, 1866, and authorized county authorities to employ jail inmates in public works and/or lease them out to private employers. Inmates were to receive a “wage” of one dollar per day, applied toward unpaid fines or costs owed to the county. Just days later, the legislature passed another law, authorizing the leasing of state prisoners. The arrangements would prove profitable for the state and deadly for the convicts, nearly all black, who were forced to work in dangerous, inhumane conditions.


November 12th, 1866

Texas Legislature Authorizes Leasing of State Prison Inmates for Profit

Because the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery and involuntary servitude explicitly excepted convicted criminals from its protections, the predominately black populations ensnared by discriminatory criminal laws passed after the Civil War had no way to avoid being thrust back into the conditions of forced labor they had only recently escaped. Soon after the Civil War’s end, Texas was one of many states to pass laws making this arrangement possible.

After passing a law authorizing the leasing of jail inmates three days before, the Texas legislature on November 12, 1866, approved a law entitled “An Act to provide for the employment of Convict labor on works of public utility,” which empowered the state to employ or lease certain classes of prisoners to build railroads, work in mines, and staff iron foundries. Prisoners convicted of murder, arson, robbery, burglary, perjury, and horse stealing were exempt from the law and were required to serve their time in the state penitentiary as before; in effect, this classification of prisoners ensured that the vast majority of state inmates eligible to be leased were black convicts.

Convict leasing became a very profitable enterprise for Texas and many other Southern states throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It proved a very dangerous and even deadly system for the black inmates forced to work in inhumane conditions that historian David Oshinsky has described as “worse than slavery.”


May 11th, 1868

Convict Leasing Begins in Georgia

After the Civil War, Georgia and other Southern states faced economic uncertainty. Dependent on enslaved black labor that was no longer available after emancipation and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Southern economies struggled to find a new solution. For many, leasing state convicts to labor for private businesses seemed the perfect answer.

Ratified in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited involuntary servitude "except as punishment for crime" and seemingly permitted the forced labor of prisoners. At the same time, Southern prison populations had grown greatly following the Civil War, and that increase was disproportionately fueled by newly-emancipated black men and women incarcerated for violating discriminatory Black Codes that criminalized unemployment and vagrancy and severely punished even the most minor thefts.

On May 11, 1868, in the midst of Reconstruction, Georgia Provisional Governor Thomas Ruger leased 100 black prisoners to William A. Fort of the Georgia & Alabama Railroad for one year for $2500 under an agreement that made Mr. Fort responsible for their well-being. Sixteen prisoners died before the end of the contract. Undeterred, Georgia officials expanded the system the following year, leasing all 393 state prisoners to work on another railroad. Over the next several years, convict leasing in Georgia proved both deadly and profitable. The state legislature routinely turned a blind eye to reports of inhumane treatment and even murder and, in 1876, authorized the state to enter into long-term, twenty-year convict leasing contracts valued at $500,000.


July 21st, 1868

Fourteenth Amendment Ratified

The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former black slaves freed as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment also forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.” By directly mentioning the role of the states, the Fourteenth Amendment notably expanded civil rights protections to black people formerly at the mercy of discriminatory state legislatures.

With the exception of Tennessee, all Southern states refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment when it was initially proposed in June 1866. In response to their obstinance, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867, authorizing the establishment of military governments in the Southern states and making ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment a condition of readmission to the Union. Tennessee, which had already ratified, was exempt from the act’s other provisions.

Final ratification of the amendment required approval by three-quarters of the states; after Ohio and New Jersey attempted to rescind their earlier ratifications, the threshold was met with Georgia’s ratification on July 21, 1868. On July 28, 1868, Secretary of State William Seward certified the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Notably, while the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship to black Americans, Native Americans would not officially become United States citizens until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.


September 28th, 1868

Racial and Political Tensions Spark Massacre of Black Community in Opelousas, Louisiana

When Louisiana voters took to the polls in April 1868, most voted to accept the new Republican-drafted Reconstruction constitution and supported Republicans in local elections. St. Landry Parish was an anomaly; voters there rejected the constitution and supported Democratic candidates, but the races’ narrow margins showed the community’s white Democrats they now shared the ballot box with a large, politically powerful black electorate.

After half-hearted efforts to sway blacks to the Democratic party failed, many whites in St. Landry resorted to violent intimidation tactics. In response, Republicans like Emerson Bentley, white publisher of the radical St. Landry Progress newspaper, organized and encouraged political activism among local black people. Racial and political tensions continued to escalate as the 1868 presidential election neared. On September 28, 1868, a local judge physically attacked Bentley in Opelousas, the parish seat, while Bentley was teaching at a local school he had helped to establish for black children. The students fled, shouting, and in the confusion many black people in the streets wrongly believed Bentley had been killed.

Fearing they were next, Republicans in Opelousas panicked and summoned black allies from the nearby town of Washington to help mount a defense. Hearing of armed black men gathered nearby, whites assembled and quickly attacked. The black forces were dispelled or arrested but the violence continued. The next night, whites marched 27 of the 29 arrested black men from jail and shot them dead, with the sheriff’s full cooperation. For the next two weeks, murderous violence swept the parish as whites terrorized the black community. The fear was so great that black people stayed off the streets and tied red strings around their arms to signify to patrolling whites that they had surrendered and sought white protection. When the attacks subsided, six whites had been killed, three Republican and three Democrat, while at least 100 black people were dead.

As a means of political and racial intimidation, the Opelousas Massacre was a great success. St. Landry was one of few Louisiana parishes not politically controlled by Republicans by late 1868. Emerson Bentley and other white Radical Republicans fled the area, leaving a solidly Democratic white electorate, while blacks had learned the consequences of opposing whites’ political will. In the November 1868 presidential election, held just weeks after the massacre and just a few months after St. Landry’s black voters had solidly supported Republican candidates in state and local races, Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant did not receive a single vote.


October 29th, 1869

White Mob Kidnaps and Whips Black Georgia Legislator for Promoting Equal Rights

Abram Colby was born into slavery in Greene County, Georgia, in approximately 1817. The son of an enslaved black woman and a white landowner, Colby was emancipated 15 years before the end of American slavery and worked tirelessly to organize freed slaves following the Civil War. A Radical Republican, Colby was elected to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives during Reconstruction. His impassioned advocacy for black civil rights earned him the attention of the local Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization founded in 1865 to resist Reconstruction and restore white supremacy through targeted violence against black people and their white political allies.

Klansmen attacked and brutally whipped 52-year-old Abram Colby on October 29, 1869. Three years later, when called to Washington, DC, to testify about the assault before a Congressional committee investigating reports of racial violence in the South, Colby bravely identified his attackers as some of the “first class men in our town. One is a lawyer, one a doctor, and some are farmers.” Shortly before the attack, Colby explained, the men had tried to bribe him to change parties or give up his office. Colby refused to do either and days later they returned:

On October 29. 1869, [the Klansmen] broke my door open, took me out of bed, took me to the woods and whipped me three hours or more and left me for dead. They said to me, “Do you think you will ever vote another damned Radical ticket?” I said, “If there was an election tomorrow, I would vote the Radical ticket.” They set in and whipped me a thousand licks more, with sticks and straps that had buckles on the ends of them.

Colby told the committee that the attack had “broken something inside of [him],” and that the Klan’s continued harassment and violent assaults had forced him to abandon his re-election campaign. Colby testified most emotionally about the attack’s impact on his daughter, who was home when the Klansmen seized him to be whipped: “My little daughter begged them not to carry me away. They drew up a gun and actually frightened her to death. She never got over it until she died. That was the part that grieves me the most.”