18 Ways Racism Was Kept Alive In America After The Civil War

Racism in America didn't end with the Civil War. Though the Reconstruction Era - a period from 1865 to 1877, in which a Republican-led US government attempted to rehabilitate the former Confederate states and incorporate newly freed slaves into the nation - brought about fundamental political rights for a segment of the population that had been enslaved, it also ushered in a period of racial violence and segregation known as the Jim Crow era, which lasted until the 1960s.

The Jim Crow era perpetuated racism in America, and life for Black Americans after the Civil War was dangerous. For many Black Americans, true freedom didn't become reality, and new challenges arose. In both law and custom, white Americans attempted to exclude, oppress, and limit the rights of Black Americans. This post-Civil War racism was as heinous as it was unbelievable, especially since some of the ways racism was kept alive mimicked or drew from the very slave system the Civil War had officially ended.

But this story is not just one of oppressors and the oppressed. Though the Jim Crow era is certainly a heartbreaking, violent chapter in African American history, it is also a story of resistance and activism for many men and women who suffered under it. Like Harriet Tubman in the antebellum and war years, or slaves who assisted the Union Army as Civil War spies, Black Americans during the Jim Crow era also challenged racism in subtle, important ways.

True, most of the Jim Crow laws were in the South. But racism existed across the country, and wasn't confined to states that rebelled in the 1860s. Racism was not just a Southern problem - it was an American one.


  • The Ku Klux Klan Invoked The Ghost Of The Confederacy To Terrorize Black Americans
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many white supremacist organizations reared their ugly heads in the years after the Civil War. Perhaps none was more notorious or prolific than the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which started right after the Civil War, when the slave system that had defined the South collapsed. Founded in late 1865 or early 1866 in Tennessee, the KKK was the brainchild of six ex-Confederate officers whose organization would go on to terrorize both Blacks and Republican politicians aligned with Reconstruction throughout the American South and beyond. 

    Klansmen cloaked themselves in white robes, as if to invoke the ghost of the Confederacy. They were without doubt politically and socially motivated. They were just as threatened by the Reconstruction government's attempts to make high offices available to Black men as they were by the changing political landscape of the South: as Black men gained the right to vote under Reconstruction, Republicans suddenly gained more voters across the South, challenging the dominance of white Democrats. 

    The "Lost Cause" mythology of the defeated Confederacy was also central to the growth of organizations like the KKK. Klansmen counted prominent ex-Confederates as members. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, for example, became the Klan's very first so-called Grand Wizard.

    The KKK's activities were as violent as they were racist. They ranged from burning down freedmen's schools and beating up teachers to murdering people as a way to suppress and intimidate voters during elections. The end of Reconstruction in 1877 meant the virtual end of the KKK in its original form. By 1915, however, it reemerged, and continues to operate as a white supremacist terrorist organization.

  • Vigilante Lynchings Happened Across The Country

    One of the most tragic and violent hallmarks of the Jim Crow era were the lynchings of African Americans across the country. Historians recognize these lynchings as a form of terror and a way to assert white supremacy. At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated two or three Black were lynched every week in the American South. Throughout the course of the Jim Crow era, thousands of Black men, women, and children were lynched.

    Perhaps the most chilling aspect of vigilante lynching was that they became public spectacle. Lynched bodies were displayed in public and photographed with the proud assassins standing by. Lynchings were advertised in local papers, and reports were  published afterward, with sordid headlines and graphic details, like the plot of a pulp novel. 

  • Chain Gangs Became The New Slavery, And Mass Incarceration Was Voter Supression
    Photo: Detroit Publishing Company / Library of Congress / Public Domain

    Chain Gangs Became The New Slavery, And Mass Incarceration Was Voter Supression

    As part of Reconstruction legislation, Black men got the right to vote. In predominantly Black areas, which were everywhere in the South, this threatened to change the political landscape. Whites consequently adopted a variety of strategies to suppress the Black vote, including mass incarceration. Chain gangs became widespread in the Jim Crow era. 

    Chain gangs were also a perverted re-iteration of the slave system; convicts were hounded by foremen who acted like slave drivers. Chain gangs and other forms of convict labor thus continued to build the South, just as slave previously had, and were an integral part of southern economic policy.

  • White Americans Claimed Science Could Justify Racism

    Though scientific racism flourished before the Civil War, it reached new heights in the final decades of the 19th century. Scientists, social scientists, and anthropologists throughout the Western world attempted to classify and typify race. In other words, they believed each race had innate characteristics - in their view, race determined human behavior, abilities, and intelligence. Whites, these pseudo-scientists argued, were naturally intelligent leaders, while Blacks were a weak race that was dying out

    In the years before the Civil War, such radical theories sought to justify slavery. After the war, it became a powerful way to dehumanize Black Americans and justify racial segregation and imperial expansion. Blacks, they claimed, were naturally distinct from whites, and genetically closer to monkeys than to men.

    Scientific racism was central in the development of eugenics, which treated humanity like a laboratory experiment to breed men and women a certain way. Though eugenics were everywhere - even in a laboratory in New York state - it became an official interest of the Nazi state in the 1930s and 1940s.

  • Pullman Porters Relied On Racial Stereotypes
    Photo: Jack Delano / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pullman Porters Relied On Racial Stereotypes

    Rail travel became increasingly popular in the decades after the Civil War. As middle-class travelers ventured further from home and expected higher degrees of comfort, an elegant mode of transportation appeared in 1868: Pullman cars. Developed by George Pullman, these plush train cars established middle-class Americans's ideas of luxury and comfort.

    Pullman wanted to staff his trains with men who made customers feel like they were pampered. So he hired ex-slaves to serve as porters, since they had been trained to serve. For the next several decades, Pullman porters were exclusively Black men, once more tying African Americans to roles of servitude that put to use what Pullman and others thought were their natural abilities.

    These workers also gave the illusion of the luxury and refinement many still associated with the antebellum South. The connection between race, slavery, and Pullman porters was reinforced when all porters would have to answer to the name "George," Pullman's first name. Just like slaves once were, Pullman's workers were referred to by their master's name

    Though white passengers saw Pullman porters as glorified house slaves - as Pullman intended - these men made the most of their low wages. Pullman porters became respectable members of their communities and helped create an African American middle class.

  • Blackface Performances Peddled Caricatures Of African Americans For Entertainment
    Photo: Strobridge & Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Blackface Performances Peddled Caricatures Of African Americans For Entertainment

    Throughout the 19th century, minstrel shows featuring blackface performers were wildly popular on both side of the Mason-Dixon line. White performers literally blackened their faces with make up and exaggerated the mannerisms and dialects associated with African American slaves as they sang and danced their way across stages. One common minstrel character was Jim Crow, the namesake of the era.

    Blackface thrived after the Civil War. Though minstrel shows began to die out by the early 20th century, new vaudeville shows often incorporated blackface numbers. Sometimes, blackface performers were African Americans with few other employment opportunities in entertainment. They would have to apply make up over their skin and become a walking, talking, singing, and dancing racialized caricature of themselves.

    Blackface went to Hollywood, too. In the first talkie - 1927's The Jazz Singer - Al Jolson performs in blackface. Similarly, 1942's Holiday Inn, a Christmas classic, has a particularly offensive scene in which Lincoln's birthday is celebrated with a blackface performance.