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African American Michigan: The Reconstruction Era

Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series looking at racial disparity in Michigan.

The post-war period when the the nation attempted to repair itself is called Reconstruction, and lasted from 1865-1877. The intent of this particular study will look at how the reshaping of the country affected African Americans, especially in Michigan, and what the African American vision of post-war America looked like.

On Jan. 3, 1865, the U.S. Congress voted in favor of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States, thus adding the word “slavery” to the Constitution for the first time. Though African Americans were “free,” the Civil War would not end until April of 1865, and even then, free did not spell equal.

In historian Eric Foner’s book “Give Me Liberty: An American History,” he presented a quote from a Congressman who would later be president, James Garfield, who asked, “What is freedom? Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” Garfield understood that to simply remove chains and let African Americans try to fend for themselves without help or protection was certainly not enough. Foner posed the question, “Did freedom mean simply the absence of slavery, or did it imply other rights for the former slaves, and if so, which ones: equal civil rights, the vote, ownership of property?” With slavery completely out of the question in Michigan, African Americans had to fight for these other inalienable rights white people have. Slavery was far from the only disparity to be addressed.

In 2006, American legal historian Paul Finkelman released “The Surprising History of Race and Law in Michigan,” in which he argues that Michigan was considerably more progressive towards African Americans than the majority of the nation. Michigan was notably a strong abolitionist state, but Finkelman points out that some cities in Michigan, such as Detroit, were not quick to release prejudices.

Michigan’s initial constitution barred colored Michiganders from voting, and since being a member of a jury was tied to voting rights, colored Michiganders could not serve on juries either. Laws to be enforced on colored citizens, known as “black codes,” in Michigan, were largely dropped in the 1830s, and were loosely enforced even to that point.

Post-Civil War, the Michigan legislature prohibited segregation in public schools, but the city of Detroit refused to follow, and claimed the prohibition did not apply to them, stating that Detroit whites would vehemently refuse to go to the same schools as colored children. Detroit, Michigan’s most populace city, held onto academic racist views into the 1960s that matched those sentiments of deep southern states.

Colored Michiganders were by federal law, unable to vote in general elections. American society and civil liberties were highly based on the right to vote. Foner shared this quote from Frederick Douglass soon after the Civil War, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” If one cannot vote for those in government, they don’t have a say, they don’t have representation. They’re still ruled. As the American colonists had chanted going into the American Revolution, “Taxation without Representation” was tyranny. The 1867 Michigan legislators understood this, and Finkelman notes that the Michigan 1867 constitutional convention highly supported black suffrage. Michigan voters rejected the 1867 constitution, not particularly because of the black suffrage inclusion, but because of other instances in the new draft. In no fault to racism of Michiganders as a whole, but to other circumstances such as changes to railroad financing government salaries, and liquor prohibition, blacks in Michigan would not yet get the vote. However, it should be pointed out that at the same convention, a 50 to 16 vote shot down making black suffrage a separate election provision.

In 1869, Michigan legislation would finally produce civil rights amendments on their own for Michiganders to vote on. These new amendments offered to eradicate all racial distinctions from the Michigan Constitution and Michigan law. Michigan successfully voted to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the 15th Amendment allowing African Americans to vote. Colored Michiganders had made great leaps in the Reconstruction Era, but the Jim Crow Era still laid ahead.

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