For years, the Reconstruction era marked a tumultuous period in American and Tennessee history. Even before the formal process of Reconstruction began following the Civil War, steps were taken to address the rights of freed slaves and the readmission of Confederate states to the Union. The materials in this collection portray a few of the challenges and victories that emerged during Reconstruction. The focus of the images rests primarily on the Reconstruction period and Gilded Age (1876-1910) in Tennessee following the Civil War.

During the early years of Reconstruction, Tennessee occupied a unique place among the formerly Confederate states. The ascendency of home grown Radical Republicans under Gov. William G. Brownlow briefly made Tennessee a laboratory of new and experimental politics for African Americans. Tennessee was the first Southern state readmitted into the Union, and black Tennesseans had been empowered as soldiers in the United States Army and, later, as militia in the Tennessee State Guard. By 1867, for the first time in Southern history, black men enjoyed the unqualified right to vote.

Because of these precocious developments, African Americans in Tennessee were in a position to exercise the hard-won rights of citizenship immediately after the Civil War. One of those rights was the ability to formally petition the state legislature for redress of grievances. In the case of African Americans, such grievances included Ku Klux Klan racial terrorism, efforts to do away with public schools open to black children, and denial of voting rights. This tumultuous and dangerous “landscape of liberation” is the context for these petitions from newly minted African American citizens to the 35th Tennessee General Assembly during the years 1866 to 1869.

Though the era of Reconstruction was not felt as strongly in Tennessee as it was in states of the Deep South, the state was nonetheless a former member of the Confederacy, forcing a massive paradigm shift for all citizens of the state. After emancipation but prior to the end of the war, President Lincoln recognized the necessity of creating a relief agency to educate and protect these recently freed slaves. With Congress’ support, Lincoln created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This agency became commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. One of the most popular benefits of the Bureau was education: in most areas of the South, laws prevented whites from teaching slaves to read or write. Former slaves, young and old, flocked to schoolhouses in the days after the war to take advantage of the educational opportunities previously denied them.

The quest to educate former slaves manifested itself in several institutions of learning across the state. Perhaps most notably, Fisk Free Colored School was established in 1866 and was named for the head of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau, General Clinton B. Fisk. In 1867, the school became Fisk University. A decade later, the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Freedmen’s Aid Society helped create Meharry Medical College.

Land tenancy became widespread but was far from universal. Social organizations and an African-American leadership class began to emerge, and one can begin to see the rise of a middle class composed for former freedmen. The Nashville Republican Banner commented on this new African-American middle class, praising them in one breath and disparaging the working class in another. "The Negro we come in contact with is the thrifty and cleanly barber or dining room servant, and even the banker and merchant. He is generally improving his opportunity, but unfortunately, he cannot be taken as representative of the indolent and shiftless hundreds of thousands whose highest ambition is a drink and a fiddle and a dance."

Many African Americans believed that by entering into a small but rising middle class they too could embrace Victorian family values: patriarchal authority, feminine modesty, "moral" rectitude, thrift, hard work, and temperance. Some African Americans hoped, often in vain, that shared values between the "better class" of whites and blacks might mitigate racism. Businessmen, such as Preston Taylor, James C. Napier, and R. H. Boyd played an increasingly important leadership role in the life of the community. These men provided a variety of services from construction and catering to barbershops and funeral parlors.

In rural areas life centered around the church because of the limitations of facilities and organizations. Aside from regular religious services, picnics, fairs, and festivals were held. In many communities, churches offered Sabbath schools where children were taught on Sundays to read, write and spell. Selected social topics were discussed as a means of reinforcing values for self-help, race pride and community solidarity.

As the United States entered the 20th Century, some white Americans sang "coon" songs, the purpose of which was to ridicule and denigrate African Americans. White supremacy, once considered a Southern idiosyncrasy, had become a national ideology. A malicious "Negrophobia," a pathological fear and hatred of blacks, had gripped the country. The beginning of the Twentieth Century witnessed a proliferation of "Jim Crow" laws in the South. Populists and Democrats, whatever their disputes, were now united in one thing: the total subjugation of blacks and their removal as far as possible from the mainstream of Southern life. After Jim Crow had survived for a generation, it became almost impossible to dismantle it. It became a part of the white mentality, passed on from generation to generation as if it were genetic in nature. Paradoxically, during the next two decades (1900-1920) the black leaders of Nashville would fight Jim Crow and yet accommodate it. In fact, the new, second generation of leaders led by James C. Napier, Preston Taylor, and Richard H. Boyd would finally become close friends of Booker T. Washington. By 1910, the agents of economic stagnation, Jim Crowism, and racial violence began to corrode the foundations of African-American progress. The Union Army, Northern missionaries, and liberal whites had left town or died. Local African Americans, therefore, began to feel powerless, hopeless and resolved to do the best they could under such dire circumstances.

  • Alexander, Thomas B. Political Reconstruction in Tennessee. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1950.
  • Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction 1865-1877. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.
  • Martinez, J. Michael. Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire During Reconstruction. Lanham, UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.
  • Shenton, James P., ed. The Reconstruction: A Documentary History of the South After the War: 1865-1877. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963.
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
  • Zuczek, Richard, ed. Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.