Civil War, Civil Rights Act, Southern Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, School segregation
The American Civil War and the subsequent abolishment of slavery in 1865 ushered in a long and tumultuous era. With a new citizenry of freedmen/freedpeople (former slaves) and Southern states’ residual adverse opinion of African-Americans – particularly pertaining to civil rights – the United States entered the era of Reconstruction. Forced to rebuild itself after a bloody and high-casualty war on her own homeland, Reconstruction dealt not only in the reunification of an entire country, but with policy regarding these newly freedmen.
In 1865, the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution stated:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
As a former slave-state and one of just four slave-states to remain in the Union (most Confederate states had seceded), Missouri did not abolish slavery until the amendment’s ratification. But perhaps it didn’t seem necessary, for slavery in Missouri was quite unlike forced servitude in more Southern states. The state housed a free black population amongst enslaved ones, who worked as fieldhands or on the river. Larger cities didn’t benefit from the unpaid work as did agricultural areas, and oftentimes slaves were permitted to work and live away from their “owners.”
When the state was forced to adopt its own new state-level constitution in 1865, the rights offered to the freedmen in the text were certainly more lenient than the Southern states, most of which immediately adopted black codes. These applied to anyone with as little as one-eighth African-American heritage. That meaning, even persons of mostly “white descent” with just one black great-grandparent.
These black codes (the forerunners of the official Jim Crow laws installed largely in the 1880s) kept black people in their “rightful place” by granting them a few rights – such as permission to own land – yet instituting new laws that made these granted rights quite difficult. Take the vagrancy law, as detailed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation:
“Southern Black Codes relied on vagrancy laws to pressure freedmen to sign labor contracts… The code provided that vagrants could be arrested and imprisoned at hard labor… the county sheriff could “hire out” black vagrants to a white employer to work off their punishment. The courts customarily waived such punishment for white vagrants, allowing them to take an oath of poverty instead.”
Or South Carolina’s special restrictions:
“[The state] banned black people from possessing most firearms, making or selling liquor, and coming into the state without first posting a bond for “good behavior.” The code made it illegal for them to sell any farm products without written permission from their white employer, supposedly to guard against stealing. Also, blacks could not practice any occupation, except farmer or servant under contract, without getting an annual license from a judge.”
With a state government in the hands of radical Republicans, Missouri excluded black codes from their constitution. Instead, it offered freedmen most of the same rights as white folk, excepting of course suffrage, biracial marriage and ability to run for office of any sort. Though the restrictions were much lighter than fellow former slave-states, African-Americans were naturally dissatisfied with the terms. 1865 also saw the formation of the Missouri Equal Rights League (MERL); after all, black men had taken up arms to protect the Union during the war just as the white men had.
But it wasn’t the notable actions of MERL that granted freedmen citizenship in 1868 and the right to vote in 1870, nor was it at the hands of Missouri’s legislature. It was the work of the federal government and the ratification of constitutional amendments 14 and 15, respectively. And in an exceptionally controversial move in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the first Civil Rights Act. To give any indication of the decree’s reception, soon after its passage it became well known as the “Force Act.” The progressive bill granted African-Americans equal treatment in the case of public services, like transportation and hotels. It also allowed for participation in everybody’s favorite activity, jury duty. This was monumental – black people might start to have more of a say in their communities, access to previously barred services, and – gasp – some form of equality.
Despite (particularly Southern) outcries, Kansas City embraced the amendments and Civil Rights act… at least, more so than any other former slave-state. Virginia Louise Glover’s book, Negro Education in Missouri, 1865 – 1900, recounts a quote from an unidentified radical Missouri senator who noted that the state’s wellbeing would likely benefit if black Missourians were not an “ignorant and degraded class.” In 1870, after the ratification of the 15th amendment (and pleas from MERL and the general black Kansas City population), the constitution was again altered. Hey, if they had the opportunity vote, they better be educated enough to do so! Accordingly, from 1870 on, if school district boundaries contained more than 15 black schoolchildren, said district must provide a separate school for those students.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875 didn’t much perturb Kansas City’s white population. The Kansas City Times reported that business owners round town had no fear of African-American patronage, as they only accounted for 15 percent of the population in the city. And the Times printed, “The colored people evidently know their place and are possessed of too much common sense to attempt to force themselves on white people.” Why should they worry? That was about as progressive as it came from a former slave-state and white-dominated society so soon after slavery’s abolishment. The radical Republicans in office in Missouri, while still certainly influenced by a long-instilled belief system of white superiority, at the very least made strides toward some sort of equality.
These small steps, along with the hope of black Kansas Citians, were dashed when the United States Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional on the grounds that the 13th and 14th amendments may have freed the slaves and granted them citizenship, but never mandated their equal treatment. As such, the federal government had no right to impose this act upon the individual states. The radical Republicans went by the by in Kansas City, replaced with a state legislature that actively promoted separation and segregation. With the repeal of the 1875 act as fuel, Missouri’s congress enacted more constraining laws against African-Americans. By 1879, the former rule restricting marriage between a white person and someone with 1/4 African heritage had been modified to 1/8 African heritage, and by 1889 it was state-mandated that black and white children learned in separate schools.
A glimmer of hope – albeit a small glimmer – existed for blacks in Kansas City for an unfortunately short time. In 1913, Kansas City officially adopted Jim Crow laws, and the rest…is history.