The Role of Poor Whites in the Reconstruction era South


In American Negro Slavery, Ulrich Phillips wrote, “A great number of southerners at all time held the firm, belief that the negro population was so docile, so little cohesive, and in the main so friendly toward the whites and so contented that a disastrous insurrection by them would be impossible.” In observing slaves alone, many plantation owners came up with this conclusion based on the behavior of the majority of slaves that were owned, along with the belief that blacks were naturally programmed to be submissive and obedient, as stated by the character Calvin Candy in Django. Looking only at the population of black slaves, to southerners it seemed almost impossible. But with poor white people thrown into the mix, a fear began to boil within.


“The slave holders… suspected that non-slaveholders, to encourage disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the black as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty. White men sometimes were linked to slave insurrectionary plots, and each such incident rekindled fear” –Eugene Genovese


Poor white people began helping black slaves out of spite. The idea of poor whites and black slaves working together and forming an alliance struck fear to many slave owners. Due to that reason, white slave supporters did whatever they could to keep the poor whites segregated from black slaves and tried to keep some sort of hatred amongst the two groups. They did so by paying the poor white people to oversee slave labor as well as segregating the Irish workers and the slave workers to avoid and alliance between the two. What this also did, was give the poor whites a sense of power and authority over the black slaves, once again, causing hatred between the two.


Howard Zinn says a lot by bringing a spotlight onto the common fear of alliance between poor white and black slaves leading to urgency for segregation between the two. He not only conveys the importance of white and black segregation, but he also coveys the reoccurring message that whether blacks and whites were on the similar ranking or not, in this day and age of slavery, white people always end up on top. Although the black slaves were the same before and after the fact that poor whites were helping them, it wasn’t until poor white people came into the picture that slave owners were afraid of rebellion. He showed how despite the fact that they were powerless in terms of their economic status, the idea remained that the poor whites were more powerful than the slaves because they were white, which resulted in the fear rebellion only when poor whites came into the picture.

White Mans Biggest Fear

Black slaves were a main commodity in the south due to a strong tobacco and cotton industry. This led to a strong paranoia by slave owners, who feared that people would help the slaves rebel, or the slaves themselves would rebel against their masters. In 1831, Nat Turners’ rebellion highlighted the fears of the slave owner, thus leading to increased security. The increased security did pay off, because for the next ten years there was only one  instance of black insurrection. To white slave owners their most important possessions was their slaves

Out of fear of losing their slaves, masters started to try everything they could do to stop the emancipation of slaves. They even suspected poor white people of helping slaves. As Genovese says, “The slaveholders… suspected that non-slaveholders would encourage slave disobedience and even rebellion, not so much out of sympathy for the blacks as out of hatred for the rich planters and resentment of their own poverty.”The paranoia of rich whites believed that out of jealousy poor whites would help blacks. According to Howard Zinn this is why there were so many measures against whites who fraternized with blacks. Another way that whites tried to stop whites from helping blacks, was by hiring whites to oversee the blacks, thus giving them money to not help them. Since the slave-owners did not want there profits to decrease they would do anything in there power to keep their slaves. As Zinn regurgitates throughout the chapter is that the elites of both the north and the south controlled the policies. It was not that northern elites were not racist, they were, they just had an economy that did not run on slaves. Unlike the south economy which ran on large plantation fields and forced labor. Thus making the most important property to a southern elite, his slaves. And he would do whatever was in his power to keep his slaves.




Media: A Catalyst for the War

“But you say I am a thief, because I took the old mare along with me. Have you got to learn that I had a better right to the old mare, as you call her, than Manasseth Logue had to me? Is it a greater sin for me to steal his horse, than it was for him to rob my mother’s cradle, and steal me? . .. Have you got to learn that human rights are mutual and reciprocal, and if you take my liberty and life, you forfeit your own liberty and life? Before God and high heaven, is there a law for one man which is not a law for every other man?

If you or any other speculator on my body and rights, wish to know how I regard my rights, they need but come here, and lay their hands on me to enslave me.. . .” -J.W. Loguen

Although the reasons President Lincoln went to war were initially racially neutral, tension had been building between the North and the South for many years. Contempt for southern slave owners only increased when newspapers like The Liberator began publishing letters and stories of the horrible experiences in the South. J.W. Loguen was a slave who escaped to the North by stealing his master’s horse; He proceeded to go to college and became a minister. After receiving a letter from his former mistress that she demanded compensation for the horse or return to slavery, Loguen openly publishes the letter and his reply to it.

This marks a time when blacks were no longer afraid to voice not only their opposition to slavery, but their defiance. Newspapers like The Liberator helped rapidly spread anti-slavery beliefs because of these firsthand accounts and pushed the North further and further apart. This marked the beginning of a time in which a clear rift existed between the free North and the enslaved South, a time when people felt free to voice their opposition and dislike for the other side. The effect was a building dislike not just for runaway slaves, but for white Northerners as well, which only helped lead the divided nation to war.

The Fear of Rebellion

“A great number of southerners at all times held the firm belief that the negro population was so docile, so little cohesive, and in the main so friendly toward the whites and so contented that a disastrous insurrection by them would be impossible. But on the whole, there was much greater anxiety abroad in the land than historians have told of…” – author, Ulrich Phillips (174)

Following years of ruthless oppression and living each day under the fear of a whip, slaves were treated as broken animals; they were trained and disciplined to obey their owners. Slave owners refused to consider the possibility of a slave uprising. Slaves were not acknowledged as human beings with emotions and the capability to think like white people; they were “its”—pieces of property. With this twisted value standard for slaves engrained in Southern culture it is no surprise that slave owners fooled themselves into thinking slaves would endure the unforgiveable trials they were forcibly subjected to. However, under the façade of power and confidence, southerners knew that slaves were just as capable as them. The looming fear of rebellion was widely unacknowledged, so as to prevent slaves from gathering courage from the stories. But the stories were also kept under wraps to preserve the illusion of white supremacy over the enslaved black men and women in the South.





shame of slavery

Fredrick Douglass once said during his Independence Day address

“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. ‘To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass- fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival… .”

I believe this long speech shows one of Zinn’s views that not only was the south guilty for the crime of slavery, but the nation as a whole for even allowing it to happen in the first place. This plays well with Zinn’s idea because Fredrick Douglass not only stated some of Zinn’s ideas but also the fact that he even dared speak up in that specific time period that could provoke violence towards him. This might also show Fredrick’s strong beliefs that all individuals deserve to be treated equality despite the color of his skin. While Fredrick Douglass didn’t win his attempt to become the vice president of the united states he is still a great visionary for human rights and his views coincided with Zinn’s fairly well. This not only shows Fredrick’s character and his firm belief in freedom but also his desire to speak his mind despite what others might think and react towards him. Zinn’s writings can be provocative at times and so this mixes very well with Fredrick’s own personal views considering he is an African American slave who fled the life of  slavery he understood very well the horrors the nation choose to over look at times that he could not tolerate which is why he dedicated his entire life to trying to gain equality for all people.





“You’ll Be Free or Die…”

The powerful words of Harriet Tubman. A strong, black, womanly figure, in American History during the countless years of slavery. Brutally beaten and injured by savage white men; she had put herself before others and gave over three thousand slaves the choice to live freely or to die chained.

“There was one of two things i had a right to, liberty or death; if i could not have one, i would have the other; for no man should take me alive…”

Conducting the Underground Railroad; Harriet Tubman, took the audacity, not fearing and having the boldness to take nineteen trips back and forth to rescue others over her own self. This was a self-less act made by Harriet and unlike most slaves, she believed it was either between life or death – and by life, she did not mean staying “alive” but more so, being “free.” Harriet had always carried a pistol around with her. This shows not only the seriousness she took each trip but also, the power she carried as a black women. Zinn mentions the power Harriet had through her actions. Even using the pistol to threaten the fugitives; she said that running away isn’t an option but a choice to finally break-free. She influenced and changed many lives of blacks; giving them the freedom to live their own lives, no longer making them fear or suffer from mistreatment and cruelty by whites. One women saving the lives of hundreds who were constantly whipped, with scared marks all over their body repeatedly, like disobeident animals; Harriet gave them the ability to escape and never to return to a place so haunting.

The Cultural Hegemony of Post-Reconstruction America

W.E.B. Du Bois, a black historian and co-founder of the NAACP,  saw the ’emancipation’ of black slaves as only the beginning of a new era of enslavement, which found it’s purpose in the evolution of American capitalism.

“For there began to rise in America in 1876 a new capitalism and a new enslavement of labor.” (210)

“Home labor in cultured lands, appeased and misled by a ballot whose power the dictatorship of vast capital strictly curtailed, was bribed by high wage and political office to unite in an exploitation of white, yellow, brown and black labor, in lesser lands…” (210)

Du Bois’ interpretation of what Zinn would call “Emancipation Without Freedom” lays the foundation for the encroachment of black freedoms in the decades following up to the Civil Rights movement. Rather than settle for equality, the South uses the transition from black enslavement to freedom as a means to “a new capitalism”; one dependent upon the oppression of poverty stricken blacks and whites. Southern Democrats as well as the hate-fueled Ku Klux Klan developed a cultural hegemony of sorts on most of the South and parts of the North during the post Reconstruction era, exploiting a fear tactic to force newly empowered blacks to surrender their 14th and 15th amendment rights. Howard Zinn uses Du Bois’ colorblind concept that this new capitalism is equally exploiting “white, yellow, brown, and black” persons to express the racial tension that exists after the Civil War, but also the growing economic tension between rich and poor in America which stands as an equal to the race factor.

Did the Emancipation Proclamation mark the end of slavery, or prolong it?

“With the Proclamation, the Union army was open to blacks. (…) The more whites had to sacrifice, the more resentment there was, particularly among poor whites in the North, who were drafted by a law that allowed the rich to buy their way out of the draft for $300. And so the draft riots of 1863 took place, uprisings of angry whites in northern cities, their targets not the rich, far away, but the blacks, near at hand.”

“A black man in Detroit described what he saw (…) He heard one white man say: “If we are got to be killed up for Negroes then we will kill every one in this town.”


Although Howard Zinn acknowledges the passing of the Proclamation to be a huge milestone for slaves as it led to the 13th amendment ending the institution of slavery, he makes the important point that blacks still continued to receive undeserved physical and verbal abuse as they had, during the period of slavery. When the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was passed, it was originally designed to declare slaves free in areas still fighting against the Union, aka the South. This opened up the opportunity for Blacks to join the Union Army. At this time, poor whites in the North were extremely upset about the fact that they were drafted by a law which privileged wealthy whites to buy their way out of serving in the Union Army for $300. But instead of placing their anger on the upper-class whites, they displaced their pent up frustration and outrage on the black community, attacking black men, women, and even children. Zinn mentions this in order to highlight the point that although slavery was ended, many aspects of it were not, such as the white man’s conviction of blacks as being socially inferior and of less worth than whites. Another aspect of slavery which continued was the severe mistreatment and physical abuse of blacks, despite the law.

Slave Revolts Were Not a Craze

“Slave revolts in the United States were not as frequent or as large-scale as those in the Caribbean islands or in South America.”

“The conspiracy of Denmark Vcsey, himself a free Negro, was thwarted before it could be carried out in 1822. The plan was to burn Charleston, South Carolina, then the sixth-largest city in the nation, and to initiate a general revolt of slaves in the area.”

Many people wonder why some slaves seemed content with their living conditions, similar to that of Stephen in Django Unchained.  Revolt seemed to be the last thing on his mind, with good reason.  Many of them turned out unsuccessful and ended with the death of anyone accused of being apart of it.  Denmark Vcsey’s attempt was said to have involved thousands of blacks.  They clearly spent a great amount of time preparing with having made over three hundred daggers and 250 pike heads and bayonets. Although thousands were not caught, thirty-five blacks were hanged.  The trial record was destroyed because with it out in the public, other slaves would study Vcsey’s plan and possibly do it better than he did.   They not only made an example out of these men but it showed that even with great preparation, it was almost impossible to follow through with a successful revolt.

The Triple Hurdle

An ex-slave and woman’s rights advocate, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Fourth National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1853.

“I know that it feels a kind o’ hissin’ and ticklin’ like to see a colored woman get up and tell you about things, and Woman’s Rights. We have all been thrown down so low that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but … we will come up again, and now I’m here. . . . we’ll have our rights; see if we don’t; and you can’t stop us from them; see if you can.”

Still struggling and fighting for woman’s rights, Sojourner Truth rose again at a meeting for the American Equal Rights Association.

“There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

Black women faced, what Howard Zinn referred to as the triple hurdle: “…of being abolitionists in a slave society, of being black among white reformers, and of being women in a reform movement dominated by men.” Struck by constant hurdles of discrimination, black women found themselves battered in a society where they were denied liberty and freedom. Harriet Tubman, a slave born woman who escaped into freedom, always carried a pistol, expressing her bold philosophy: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive…” Black women were punished and pushed into being minorites in terms of race, class and gender, continuously being looked down upon and thus stripped of their rights. Despite this, black women also played important roles in the Civil War as well as the rebuiling of the postwar South, undoubtedly displaying their passionate efforts for the equality for black men and women.