Reconstruction, 1865-1875

During Reconstruction, Tennessee was at the forefront of political and social change; as a result, the state also experienced the backlash against the stunning transformations that took place during the war and its aftermath. Slavery was legally abolished in Tennessee even before the war officially ended. Early in April 1865, the Tennessee General Assembly unanimously ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. During the Reconstruction period, Tennessee’s former slaves continued the transition to freedom that had begun during the war, establishing communities outside of the rule of slavery. They created churches, cemeteries, and schools, including the First Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee’s oldest surviving African-American church edifice, and Jubilee Hall of Fisk University in Nashville, the nation’s first permanent building for the higher education of black citizens. Black Tennesseans also commemorated their new status by holding annual, public Emancipation Day celebrations in communities throughout the state.

In 1866, Tennessee became the first former Confederate state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which specified that no state should “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” and shortly thereafter Tennessee became the first former Confederate state to return to the Union. African-American men gained the franchise in 1867, two full years before Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment. A small number of black Tennesseans took positions in local and state government, including Sampson W. Keeble, a Nashville barber who in 1872 became the first black citizen elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives.

From 1865 to 1872, many former slaves in Tennessee took advantage of local offices of the Freedmen's Bureau, created by Congress to help manage the transition from slavery to freedom. The Bureau administered schools, negotiated labor contracts between ex-slaves and white employers, provided legal advice to freedpeople, and organized such institutions as hospitals, orphanages, and elderly homes. Because it was poorly funded, the Bureau’s effectiveness was limited. Conflict also arose between Bureau agents who were intent on restoring order and former slaves who were dedicated to ensuring that freedom differed significantly from slavery.

In response to the assertive efforts of black Tennesseans to take full advantage of their new civil rights, many of these rights were stripped from African Americans before they could fully be exercised. State legislators wrote a “poll tax” clause into the new state constitution of 1870, and although this clause was repealed three years later, legislators would reactivate it in 1890. Violence characterized countless individual interactions between whites and blacks, especially disputes between employers and their workers. Late in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan, one of several emerging vigilante groups, was organized in Pulaski, Tennessee, to promote the political ambitions of former Confederate soldiers through the intimidation of black residents. In May 1866, race riots erupted in Memphis over a three-day period and resulted in the deaths of 46 blacks and 2 whites, among other outrages.

In the midst of this racial unrest, Tennesseans worked to rebuild their towns, transportation systems, and farms. The national economic depression of the early 1870s only made these postwar economic challenges more difficult. Wartime destruction, emancipation, and a lack of capital resulted in the bankruptcy and breakup of antebellum plantations. The result was a system of sharecropping for the cultivation of cotton and tobacco. New industries, funded by Northern capital, developed around the extraction of natural resources. The timber and mining industries provided jobs but did not create a lot of wealth for Tennesseans. While Tennessee would remain a predominantly rural and agricultural state, the state would see steady growth of its towns and cities.

As Tennesseans struggled to come to terms with upheaval within the state, one of their own grappled with change on the national scene. After the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, East Tennessean Andrew Johnson had inherited an atmosphere of confusion and political turmoil. Weighing the options for the restoration of the Union, Johnson was soon waging his own war with Congress. Johnson, who had become increasingly sympathetic toward the South’s wealthy landowners whom he had once denounced, opposed the plans of the Radical Republicans in Congress. Impeached by the House of Representatives, Johnson was acquitted by the Senate by one vote.

To visit sites in Tennessee associated with Reconstruction, see our guide Tennessee's Reconstruction Past: A Driving Tour.