• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass takes on Reconstruction

The Civil War was over. General Robert E. Lee had officially surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and now the Negroes were no longer slaves – physically. Though the Emancipation Proclamation provided them freedom, there was much they were not yet ready to face after a lifetime of servitude.

As the Southern states returned to the union, their constitutions were rewritten to recognize Negroes as citizens. Those who had been masters of slaves in the past were now required to hire these individuals as laborers rather than act as owners.

Douglass now became editor-in-chief of The New National Era, a newspaper based in Washington, D.C. A short time later he turned over the responsibility for the paper to his sons, Lewis and Frederick, Jr. By doing so, he was free to handle the required tasks of running the Freedmen’s Bank, a financial institution established to handle the banking needs of newly freed men and woman.

Reconstruction was a hard time for the nation as a whole, but more so for people like Douglass, as well as the freed slaves. Dishonesty was on the rampage and prejudice at an all-time high. The Ku Klux Klan incited violence and began snatching away many of the newly acquired rights the Negroes were legally entitled to. Though Douglass was encouraged to move south and run for office, he had no interest in doing so. There was already enough on his plate without the need to add more.

After living to see slavery legally abolished, Douglass’s next goal was to witness black men having the privilege to cast votes. In an effort to do so, Douglass began to butt heads with leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, many of whom were friends of his. They felt white women should be given the right to vote before black men, due to the fact they were better educated than the newly released slaves. Douglass strongly disagreed.

Frederick desired to see all Americans have the right to vote, male and female, black and white; however, he also fervently argued: If the Negro knows enough to fight for his country, he knows enough to vote. If he knows enough to pay taxes for the support of the government, he knows enough to vote.” He asked the women suffragists to strengthen their patience a bit longer and allow the black man his rightful due. The 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on February 26, 1869, and enacted on February 3, 1870. (The 19th Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote.)

In June 1872, Frederick Douglass was away from home when he received the news his house in Rochester, New York had caught fire and burned to the ground. When he returned home, he learned Anna and daughter Rosetta were able to save very few of the family’s possessions. The fire was far too hot and moved too quickly, so their ability to remove things from the house was severely hampered.

The fire not only destroyed many precious family possessions, it also took with it 12 years’ worth of documented American history. Between the years 1848 and 1860, Douglass chronicled in his newspaper his many activities, along with other events taking place in the country. Among these were the Free Soil Convention, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the Dred Scott decision, repeal of the Missouri Compromise, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and the opening days of the Civil War.

Also gone were all the records of Douglass’s dedicated work during his years as an abolitionist, along with all the issues of his newspapers he had saved. One of his friends had personally saved two volumes of the newspaper, which were given to Douglass, but he was never able to replace the others.

After their home was destroyed, Frederick and Anna began to reevaluate their lives and decide how they should proceed from here. Their decision was to leave Rochester and move to Washington, D.C. When they did, life in the nation’s capital suddenly opened a whole new career opportunity for Douglass, moving him into the country’s political arena. Prior to this, a black man attaining such a position of influence and power was unheard of, but a new day had now dawned and things were changing.

Douglass’s barrier-breaking efforts now resulted in other black men becoming politically active. Before long, the first blacks were elected to the House and Senate. Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi was the first black senator and Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina was the first black representative. They were soon joined by Rep. Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Rep. Josiah Walls of Florida, Rep. Jefferson Long of Georgia, Rep. Robert Brown Elliott and Rep. Robert DeLarge of South Carolina. (It should be noted – all of the early black representatives and senators were elected from the South and each one was a Republican.)

As Douglass joined the ranks of political leaders, he was first and foremost a civil rights leader with the majority of his actions directed towards helping the oppressed. He now spent a significant amount of his time meeting with key leaders and government officials. Various presidents sought his opinions on numerous matters, which he willingly offered. His voice continued to be heard in favor of change which emphasized the best interest of his nation and countrymen - black and white, male and female, rich and poor.

Despite the severe prejudice which was alive and well in the United States during Reconstruction, Douglass walked bravely among the country’s leaders. He also continued to remain current on situations affecting the disadvantaged. In doing so, he stood head and shoulders above the crowd.

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