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Chapter Six

Reconstruction  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

E-mail comments to N4JFJ@aol.com

      Many whites were appalled over what was happening in Charlotte and its environs in terms of the advancement of African Americans in the years immediately following the Civil War. The traditional white elite of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County joined their compatriots throughout North Carolina and the South in opposing the creation of greater social and economic equality for the rank-and-file citizenry, black and white.  "The Negro is a good thing for fanatics, demagogues and hypocritical philanthropists to prate about," proclaimed the Western Democrat .   "We are in favor of treating colored people kindly, fairly and justly," the newspaper declared in 1868, "but at the same time we warn them, as a friend, against thrusting themselves forward as the rulers of the white race." D. H. Hill minced no words about how he felt.   "As children need parents, so do Negroes need masters," declared a newspaper editorial that Hill reprinted in The Land We Love .

    Historian Paul D. Escott contends that" continuity in power relationships and in the elite's undemocratic attitudes" spanned the Civil War.  "The men who benefited from the aristocratic customs and laws of 1850," he asserts, "fought tenaciously to protect their power and privilege during the Civil War and Reconstruction." Such influential whites as railroad promoter William Johnston  and physician J. B. Alexander  believed that blacks and lower class whites were incapable of exercising prudent political judgments.  Consequently, Johnston, Alexander, and other men of their elitist persuasion worked tirelessly to maintain the social hierarchy of ante-bellum Charlotte and Mecklenburg County after the Civil War. 

 

J. B. Alexander

Most wealthy and middle class whites in the South reacted angrily when the United States Congress wrested control of Reconstruction policies from President Andrew Johnson and passed  a series of laws in 1867 that established what many Southerners regarded as onerous  requirements  for being accepted back into the Union. “The white people of the former Confederacy were masters in their own states for a period of one to three years when no compulsion was put upon them to enfranchise the Black,” explains historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The Radical Republicans, upset by the refusal of Southern white politicians to let blacks vote and exercise full civil rights, divided the South into five military districts and stipulated that all states in the former Confederacy had to enact universal manhood suffrage and approve new constitutions consistent with the Constitution of the United States.  This meant that free blacks would be able to vote in North Carolina for the first time since 1835 and that their ranks would now include hordes of former bondspeople. 

     Elections for a constitutional convention were held under duress in North Carolina in November 1867.  Blacks and poor whites flocked to the polls.   Controlled by African Americans and pro-Unionist whites, despairingly known as “Carpetbaggers ” and “Scalawags ,” the convention completed its work in March 1868; and soon thereafter North Carolina was readmitted to the Union.  The new constitution eliminated all property qualifications for voting or holding office and provided for a “general and uniform system of Public Schools.”  Even more ominously for elitist and middle class whites, it eliminated the system of county Justices of the Peace and created elected county commissions as the governing body of local government.  “The traditional aristocratic structure of local government was destroyed,” writes Paul Escott, “and the opportunity for full local democracy rose in its place.”   

Governor William H. Holden

     Newspaperman William W. Holden, who had served briefly as Provisional Governor  in 1865 and who had brought about the establishment of the Republican Party in North Carolina two years later, was elected Governor in April 1868.  Large numbers of whites were convinced that they had no chance of winning the election and refused to vote.  Republicans carried 58 of North Carolina’s 89 counties.  “Prominent men of the old elite saw their worst nightmare – an alliance among the lower classes of both races – materializing under the protection of the federal government,” says Escott.

     The mood in Mecklenburg County was tense.   Mecklenburg did not give Holden a majority and voted against ratification of the new constitution.   When Holden came to Charlotte during the campaign, local whites, who called themselves Conservatives, burned him in effigy and hurled insults at him when he stepped off the train.  Holden spoke to a large crowd of   supporters, mostly African Americans, waved a bloody shirt in the air, reminded the crowd of the secessionist sentiments of Mecklenburg County, and accused his opponents of “enacting the scenes of 1860-61.”   Thomas McAlpine , Charlotte agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau , a Federal agency established in 1865 to assist Southern refugees, was concerned about the retribution that embittered whites were meting out against African Americans who had voted with the Republicans. Deliveryman Allen Cruse  fired five black employees who supported Holden.  One black voter in Mecklenburg County had his mule killed on the night of the election.

    The most ominous form of white payback against “unruly” blacks was political terror and physical intimidation.  In 1866, six Confederate veterans met in Pulaski, Tennessee and founded the Ku Klux Klan .  Its membership quickly spread into other states, including North Carolina. “The immediate and primary goal of the Klan was to wrest political power away from the Republicans,” Escott explains.   Although there is no evidence that  it operated in Mecklenburg County, the Klan had its local admirers, especially among affluent and middle class whites.   “The Ku Klux Klan was all that saved our country, our women, children and old men,” proclaimed J. B. Alexander .  “Our condition was desperate,” he insisted.  “The best blood on earth was subject to the will of the lowest and basest creatures that ever walked on earth.”

 

     Affluent and middle class whites were determined to reverse the political tide and undermine white support for the Republican Party "by attacking racial equality as the weakest point in the Republican program."   In addition to brutalizing blacks when necessary, the Conservatives sought to use the doctrines of White Supremacy  to solidify their electoral base.   D. A. Tompkins , a South Carolinian trained in the North as an engineer and a resident of Charlotte beginning in 1883, stated in his two-volume history of Mecklenburg County that the “white man will survive and will continue to be the controlling factor in all matters of advancing civilization.”

     The scheme was simple and ultimately successful.  Poor whites would be weaned  from forming alliances with African Americans on the basis of their shared economic interests and would be made to understand they should stand shoulder to shoulder with members of their own race. "Instead  of letting Republicans define the issue as democracy -- universal manhood suffrage, local democracy, free public schools for all, and expanded economic opportunity," Escott contends, "Conservatives set out to make white supremacy the central question."   In return, affluent and middle class whites promised to create jobs for impoverished whites and for cooperative blacks by advancing the economic recovery of the South.  In short, they would fashion a “New South.”  “To consolidate past victories, the Democrats built shibboleths of party, defining themselves as the agents of reform, white unity, and deliverance from the ‘horrors’ of black rule,” Escott argues.  “To strengthen themselves in the future, they supported visions of a New South of progress, improvement, and prosperity.”

 

     The Conservatives, who would soon begin calling themselves Democrats again, gained large majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 1870.  Interestingly, two out of every three North Carolina counties that moved from the Republican to the Democratic camp had experienced substantial Klan activity since 1868.  Also undermining popular support for the Republicans were exaggerated allegations of governmental corruption.  "Although some illiterate blacks were elected to state conventions and legislatures," contends Samuel Eliot Morison, "many of the colored leaders were men of education who showed ability equal to the ordinary run of state legislators anywhere."

     Bolstered by their victory at the ballot box, the Democrats called for another constitutional convention in 1875.  The voters approved thirty amendments the following year, the general effect of which was to concentrate greater power in the legislature now that the Democrats controlled it.   The most important of the amendments gave the general assembly "full power by statute to modify, change, or abrogate" the existing rules of county government.  This meant that the Democrats could nullify the election of county officials, most notably African Americans  in the eastern part  of North Carolina, where blacks were most numerous.  "It is easy to see why the Democratic offensive was aimed so directly at local government," Escott asserts.  "Control of county affairs had been the foundation of North Carolina's aristocratic social order." \

Zebulon Vance

Two events in 1876 signaled the end of Reconstruction in the Tar Heel State.  Zebulon Vance , North Carolina's popular Civil War governor, was elected chief executive again, thereby demonstrating that the ante-bellum elite was predominant once more.  Also, Rutherford B. Hayes   became President of the United States and withdrew the last Federal troops from the South, thereby removing the North’s indispensable instrument for enforcing its will.  "Thus, by 1877, all former Confederate states were back in the Union and in charge of their domestic affairs, subject only to the requirements of two constitutional amendments to protect the freedmen's civil rights," says Morison. 

      African Americans continued to run for political office in Mecklenburg County   until the end of the nineteenth century, and several routinely served on the Charlotte Board of Aldermen.   John T. Schenck , a mulatto carpenter, represented Second Ward for four terms, and blacks were consistently elected from Third Ward.  But white Democrats invariably held the majority on the twelve-member Board of Aldermen, and Republicans never succeeded in electing a mayor.  "While accommodating new economic growth, new business leaders, a vigorous Republican party, and black political participation, the town continued to be dominated by the secessionists of the Civil War," asserts historian Janette Greenwood.

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