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Picturing Black History, Part 2: The American Civil War and Segregation

Welcome back to this five-part series, where we're exploring the history of people of African ancestry in the United States through photography, in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and in celebration of Black History Month/African Heritage Month.

This series traces history through photographs from free-to-all public archives. In the first part, we looked at the era of slavery. On this page we'll see a photographic history of Africans in America during the Civil War and emancipation, followed by the years of segregation. As in the first part, we will look at photos along the way.


By 1860, more than four million enslaved people of African ancestry lived in the southern states of the United States, and were inextricably woven into the social, political, and economic life of the south. Slaves worked on plantations, in mills, and in homes belonging to whites where they cooked, cleaned and raised children. They worked in southern cities in construction, cleaning streets, as stevedores, dockhands, blacksmiths, bakers, and more.

Black Union Army Private, his wife and twin daughters - 1863-65. Source: Library of Congress

To white southerners, they were an inferior childlike race, incapable of looking after themselves. Whites defended slavery as a benevolent system that took care of the slaves' basic needs, kept them busy, and attempted to Christianize them. Northerners, for the most part, did not doubt the inferiority of African peoples, but with slavery having been abolished through the north by 1809, they did not agree with southerners that slavery was a benevolent system and were wholly opposed to the institution for a variety of reasons. 

This difference in positions regarding slavery created a great ideological split. At the same time, the North and South had increasingly different economic interests, too: the South with an economy very much reliant on exports and forced labour, while in the North powerful new cities grew around intensely urban factory work. These tensions, and the shifting influences they created, threatened to split the United States apart.

Conquest and Conflict

Both Southern and Northern politicians attempted to compromise on various other issues in order to preserve the union. While the number of slave-owning states and non-slave-owning states were equal in number, a showdown on the issue was kept at bay. However, as the United States spread further West and took more land from the Indigenous, more states joined the union. Political battles over whether new states would be admitted as slave states or free states ensued, because whichever their designation, each new state could give one side more power than the other in a legislature that could determine the future of slavery in the USA. 

By 1860, 15 of 34 states in the United States were slave states and 19 were free states, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, southerners feared that as a Republican, his party’s anti-slavery outlook spelt doom for slavery.

Shortly after Lincoln won office, eleven Southern states seceded from the United States to form the Confederate States of America. When they did, they made it clear that their aim was to preserve the institution of slavery. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens said that the ideological cornerstone of the new nation they sought to form was that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “slavery and subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.”   

Civil War

The secession of states sparked the Civil War, which the Lincoln government said was being waged not to eliminate slavery but to preserve the Union. As the Civil War dragged on, with high casualties on both sides and increasing numbers of the enslaved relocating behind Union lines and wanting to fight on the side of the Union, Lincoln felt he had little choice but to emancipate the enslaved. On 1 January 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved people living in the Confederate states. He also authorized the use of freed slaves in Union military service, which cleared the way for enslaved Africans to participate in the Civil War.

Which brings us to our first photograph:

4th United States Colored Infantry. Source: Library of Congress

Not only were the cameras of the day large and difficult to carry around, but the images had to be developed quickly, using the wet-plate process, meaning photographers also had to travel with their darkrooms and their supplies of chemicals. The dynamic, front-line reportage images of later war photographers simply weren't possible in this era. Instead, we have staged, posed photographs of soldiers in uniform but not actually in combat. When battlefield photographs were taken, photographers sometimes staged photographs and moved bodies to create more dramatic scenes than were possible with the cumbersome cameras of the day. Nevertheless, these images were novel at the time and now serve as important historical documents.

Though Southern planters used deception and violence to keep enslaved people from leaving plantations, leave they did. Nearly 200,000 black men served in the US Army and Navy, where about 80 were black commissioned officers. In the course of the war, nearly 40,000 black soldiers died, with around 30,000 of that number being carried off by infection or disease. Black women could not formally join the Army, but many served as nurses, spies, and scouts, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, who scouted for the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.

Thomas F Drayton with his slavesThomas F Drayton with his slavesThomas F Drayton with his slaves
The slaves of Confederate officer Thomas F. Drayton. Source: Library of Congress

Marching the Union Army through the South with an ever-growing number of freed slaves in its wake, General William Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, which set aside part of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be settled exclusively by freed slaves as compensation for centuries of unpaid labour and abuse, and later ordered the army to lend mules to help the freed slaves in their farming effort. Congress also established the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865 with a mandate to provide formerly enslaved people with basic necessities and to oversee their condition and treatment in the former Confederate States.

In the spring of 1865, the Confederate armies surrendered, the war ended, and in December that year the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, which prohibited slavery throughout the United States “except as punishment for crime.”

Black Emancipation vs. White Supremacy: The Reconstruction Years (1865–77)

After the long and bloody battle that claimed 620,000 lives, the even longer process of rebuilding a united country free of slavery began with what became known as the period of Reconstruction. Reconstruction had two aims:

  1. Redress the inequities of slavery and its political, social, and economic legacy.
  2. Solve the problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war. 

The biggest challenge to Reconstruction arose because White Southern identity was so grounded in the belief that whites are inherently superior to blacks that they were violently opposed to treating their former human property as equals or paying for their labour. 

Southerners found an ally in President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Abraham Lincoln as President after Lincoln was assassinated. President Johnson, a Unionist former slaveholder from Tennessee, repeatedly attempted to block any action that a progressive Republican Congress took on behalf of the freed slaves.

Though he initially promised to punish the Southern secessionists, Johnson immediately rescinded orders granting the formerly enslaved tracts of land confiscated from Confederates (and by 1866 Johnson had issued 7,000 pardons). Having never been compensated for their labour, most of the formerly enslaved people had no money to acquire land themselves. And, as whites routinely excluded them from credit systems, they were shut out of loans and unable to purchase property.

Even as the formerly enslaved fought to assert their independence and gain economic autonomy, states enacted laws known as Black Codes to control the former slaves and ensure their continued availability as cheap labour. While the codes granted the former slaves some freedoms, like the right to buy and own property (in theory, if not in practice) and marry, their primary purpose was to control their labour and activity. Under Black Codes, many states required the former slaves to sign yearly labour contracts. If they refused, they could be arrested, fined, beaten, and forced into unpaid labour by the all-white state militia, which was often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War.


In support of the Black Codes, Johnson advocated a new practice that soon replaced slavery as a primary source of Southern agricultural labour: sharecropping. Under this system, Black labourers worked white-owned land in exchange for a share of the crop at harvest minus costs for food and lodging, often in the same slave quarters they had previously inhabited. As most of the freed slaves could neither read nor write, they were often cheated by landowners, rarely received fair pay, and had no recourse.

Sharecropping, Georgia.  Source: Library of Congress

The Rise of Black Activism

Despite huge challenges, African Americans fought to gain the equal treatment denied to them after emancipation. They organized meetings and protests demanding equal rights and protesting discrimination. One of their key demands was to secure the right to vote.

Education was also a key area of focus. Having mostly been forbidden during slavery to learn to read, many former slaves were eager for education for themselves and their children. With no initial access to public schools and a lack of teachers and funding, they faced severe obstacles, but they filled schoolhouses when they were available.

The Bureau helped support schools like this one at James’ Plantation, North Carolina to educate newly freed children. Source: Smithsonian

With access to the ballot box, African Americans were able to elect representatives who promised to free them from the hated Black Codes and the restrictive policies of President Johnson. With strong support from black voters, Republicans won a landslide victory in the 1866 congressional races, and they quickly passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared the formerly enslaved to be full Americans citizens entitled to equal civil rights.

After that came the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and meant that the former slaves recently freed could finally be recognized as US citizens. Then the same congress passed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Thomas Mundy Peterson, first African-American to vote in an election under the just-enacted provisions of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution. His vote was cast in March, 1870 - Source: Smithsonian

A Seat at the Table

This new legislation led to a near 90% turnout of African American voters in state government elections and more than 600 African Americans, most of them formerly enslaved, elected as state legislators. Another 18 African Americans rose to serve in state executive positions, including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, superintendent of education, and treasurer. In 1872, P.B.S. Pinchback became the first African American governor in America. The Reconstruction states sent 16 African American representatives to the United States Congress, and Mississippi voters elected the nation’s first Black senators: Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce.

U.S. Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American in Congress. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The new Congress took action to repeal discriminatory laws, reduce the number of capital offences, allow African Americans to serve on juries, and more. For the first time, African Americans could speak for themselves from the seat of power about issues that directly concerned them. When the US Congress passed the Amnesty Act in 1872, returning full civil rights to Confederate leaders and restoring their eligibility to hold public office, it was over the objection of Congressman Jefferson Long pictured below.

Born into slavery in 1836 and elected in 1870 as Georgia’s first Black representative in the United States Congress, Long became the first Black person to speak on the House floor when he opposed the amnesty.

Jefferson Long - Source: Library of Congress

"Do we, then, really propose here today [ ] to relieve from political disability the very men who have committed these Ku Klux outrages? I think that I am doing my duty to my constituents and my duty to my country when I vote against any such proposition... Mr. Speaker, I propose, as a man raised as a slave, my mother a slave before me, and my ancestry slaves as far back as I can trace them...if this House removes the disabilities of disloyal men [ ], I venture to prophesy you will again have trouble from the very same men who gave you trouble before.”

Restoring White Supremacy Through Terrorism

Then as now, the surge of black activism led to a vicious white backlash. Organized and violent white resistance started in late 1865, when six Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK drew thousands of members from all sectors of white society, and their members launched a bloody reign of terror fuelled by a commitment to white supremacy. Vigilantes whipped and lynched black freedmen and sexually assualted black freedwomen with impunity. 

Johnson's successor was President Ulysses S. Grant, who supported progressive Reconstruction and provided federal troops to keep order. Congress passed a series of laws in 1870 and 1871—the Enforcement Acts and the Ku Klux Klan Act—that authorized individuals to go to federal court for help when their civil rights were violated and empowered the federal government to prosecute civil rights violations as crimes.

African Americans took full advantage of these laws after the Colfax Massacre, in which an estimated 62 to 153 African Americans were murdered by white militiamen. Federal charges were brought against several white insurgents under the Enforcement Act of 1870, and three militiamen were found guilty of 16 charges. The presiding judge, however, dismissed the convictions. 

The federal government appealed the case, and it was heard by the US Supreme Court in United States v. Cruikshank (1875). In what was to be the biggest blow to the African American quest for safety and equal protection under the law, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment provided protection only against actions of the State, not against violence done by individuals, and the power of the federal government was “limited to the enforcement of this guaranty.” With the Enforcement Act of 1870 was rendered useless, African Americans in the South were left at the mercy of white terrorists acting as private citizens.

When United States v. Cruikshank was decided, the Justice Department dropped hundreds of Enforcement Act prosecutions across the south. Violence continued to spread, and increasingly, attacks on African Americans in the South were carried out by undisguised men in broad daylight.

Without the protection of the law, African Americans were brutally attacked when they tried to vote in the presidential elections of 1876. With voter suppression rampant, the vote ended in a deadlock between the Republican and Democrat candidates. They agreed on a compromise: the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes would become president, but he had to promise to end Reconstruction.

Hayes kept his word. He ended the federal troops’ role in Southern politics and closed the chapter on the era of Reconstruction. 

Unequal Again: Jim Crow Segregation

By most measures, Reconstruction failed to achieve its primary goals. It neither redressed the social, political or economic inequities created by slavery, nor did it solve the problems arising from readmitting the breakaway Confederate states back into the Union. These twin failures had dire consequences for African Americans and left a ongoing rift in America's social, political, and economic landscape, one still seen today.

When the North withdrew its influence in the South, it left African Americans defenceless and outnumbered in the midst of a hate-filled and pathologically angry white population. It didn't take long before the Southern Democrat-dominated state and local governments enacted a series of laws knows as the "Jim Crow" laws, aimed at putting African Americans firmly back in their place. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation and disenfranchisement and removed any political and economic gains made by African Americans during the Reconstruction period.

Segregated bus stationSegregated bus stationSegregated bus station
A segregated bus station in Durham, N.C. Source: Library of Congress

They mandated the segregation of public spaces, public schools, public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains between white and black people. Later, in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, initiated the segregation of federal workplaces.

As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans living in the South. Facilities for African Americans were consistently inferior and underfunded compared to facilities for white Americans; and sometimes, there were no facilities for the black community at all.

On top of that, African Americans across the South were routinely prevented from voting by white violence and intimidation. The brief period of electing representatives who would support them ended, and as they no longer formed a voting bloc, neither Republicans nor Democrats had an interest in courting them.

Slavery by Another Name

The 13th Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude “except as punishment for crime," and this was the loophole southerners needed to acquire once again the free labour they had lost as a result of the Civil War.

Enter "convict leasing", a system in which both the state and private companies profited from the labour of predominantly African-American men in the criminal justice system.

This photograph shows African-American teenage prisoners caught up in the convict labour system in the state of Florida, which had a notorious reputation for its severe penal labour system. Source: Library of Congress

Thanks to the Black Codes and other discriminatory laws throughout the South, it was common for African Americans to be arrested and subsequently incarcerated for minor crimes such as "loitering". They were then forced into unpaid labour for the state or for private companies and plantations that "leased" them. This was a way to ensure a continued supply of free labour even after slavery had ended, as well as maintaining control over the black population and weakening the resistance to Jim Crow segregation.

The Black Image in the White Mind

Negative stereotypes of people of African people are an outgrowth of the need to demonize them, dismiss their humanity, and justify their abuse. For example, though an enslaved person forced to work from sun up to sun down could hardly be described as lazy, laziness became a centuries-old pervasive characteristic assigned to African peoples by whites.

Stereotypes like this one and others, though popular since the trans-Atlantic slave trade, exploded during Jim Crow segregation, which saw a burgeoning of racist stereotypes enshrined in cards, posters, performances, and other objects in popular culture. They were meant to demean and demoralize people of African ancestry and reaffirm in the white mind their inferiority and the necessity of abusing them.

At first, watermelons were a symbol of freedom for African Americans in the South. Growing and selling watermelons became a common way for former slaves to earn a living after Emancipation, so the fruit became a means of achieving self-sufficiency and pride.

Men and women in a field gathering watermellonsMen and women in a field gathering watermellonsMen and women in a field gathering watermellons
Gathering Watermelons, from the Smithsonian Institute

But as African Americans became associated with watermelons, many southern whites turned it into a powerful negative stereotype. They produced a flood of popular advertisements, postcards, posters and other images showing African Americans eating watermelons, associating it with dirtiness, laziness and other undesirable traits.

As white photographers and other artists took an interest in black subjects, they played an important role in cementing the image of black people in the minds of white audiences both in the South and the North. Indeed, for people in the North, these demeaning images were often their first encounter with people of African ancestry.

So when they met a real black person, that person was an "already read text", in the words of Barbara Johnson. The stereotype came first, and nothing could dislodge it from people's minds. So the deluge of stereotypical images of black people on posters, mugs, ashtrays and many other everyday objects played an important role in securing support for Jim Crow segregation in the South and ensuring that whites in the North did not try to overturn it.

Stranger Fruit: Lynching

Despite the resurgence of white power in the South, much of the progressive legislation of the Reconstruction era remained on the books. Legally, African Americans were free and had the right to vote, the right to equal treatment, and so on.

So, to maintain the racial hierarchy and ensure that African Americans never accessed the rights they had on paper, southern whites spread terror and enforced control through frequent public lynchings.

Between the end of the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, it is estimated that between 50 and 100 African Americans were lynched every year. That number was to increase drastically during Jim Crow segregation, and by 1950, more than 4,000 African Americans had been lynched across 22 states. 

Today, lynching is most commonly remembered as a punishment exacted by white mobs upon Black men accused of sexually assaulting white women, however, African Americans were lynched under varied pretenses, from looking at whites in a displeasing manner to accusations of arson, robbery, non-sexual assault, and vagrancy, as well as rape and murder. Professional photographers were often present at lynchings to take photos that they then sold as postcard souvenirs which attendees would then send to family and friends.

In one photo, a crowd gathered to witness the killing of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who had been accused of murder.  This image, too violent to show here, was the inspiration for the poem 'Strange Fruit' by Abel Meeropol, a poem later performed by Billy Holiday, called by Time magazine in 1999 the "song of the century." This version is by Nina Simone:


If you've missed the first part of this series, please check out:

In the rest of this series, we'll look at photographs from the following periods:

  • The Great Migration and the Flourishing of African American Culture
  • The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
  • Black Lives Matter Movement

Must-See Collections

If you want to learn more about black history through photography, explore some of these wonderful archives:

1. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Explore over 300,000 images in this section of the New York Public Library system that's dedicated to black history.

2. Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs

Images featured in the Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs were assembled by Stephan Loewentheil and donated by the Loewentheil family. 

Source: Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs
The collection includes some historical images that reveal racist, disturbing, or otherwise negative representations or stereotypes of the people depicted. These images have been included as part of the historical record to enable study of this history. 

3. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds millions of photographs, books, newspapers and other documents that can help you explore any area of black history that interests you.

4. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum itself is well worth a visit when Covid-19 allows, but in the meantime, you can explore the museum's digital archives on its website.

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