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REPERCUSSIONS OF RECONSTRUCTION: The Northern Negro, 1870-1883 Leslie H. Fishel, Jr. From Boston to San Francisco, Negroes outside of the soutii greeted the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 with loud huzzahs. WilUam Nesbit, president of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League, designated April 26 as the statewide day of recognition and exulted, "Never in the past had we such cause for rejoicing." Plans for massive celebrations began before the official announcement of ratification and diere were few communities whose Negro residents did not observe the event. In tiieir eyes, the right to vote was the capstone of reconstruction .1 The events of the following thirteen years may be viewed in terms of this sense of high achievement and against a background of three interrelated currents which swirled in and around the northern Negro group. One was the failure of tiieir leadership in this period. The second was their inabiUty to recognize tiieir own essential urban character and to focus on local issues. The third was their rebanee on national support which meant, in fact, depending upon southern issues, votes, and voices to resolve the recognized racial problems of the period. One way to look at these currents is to examine in some detail die failure of Negro leaders, who as a group were unable to organize their foUowing, develop strategy and employ tactics tiiat might bring nearer the goal of equal rights. While whites provided insuperable obstacles, northern Negro leaders, largely ignoring urban and local matters and seeking southern Negro support for national issues, dissipated their energies and potency between 1870 and 1883. Northern Negroes undoubtedly believed that they were partiaUy responsible for the passage of the Fifteentii Amendment. In 1865, tiieir leaders had activated die National Equal Rights League, with state !The Elevator (San Francisco), Feb. 25, Mar. 11, Apr. 22, June 3, 1870; the New Era, Feb. 10, Apr. 21, May 5, 1870; Ira V. Brown, "Pennsylvania and the Rights of the Negro, Pennsylvania History, XXVIII (Jan., 1961), 52-53. The quotation is in the Elevator, Apr. 22, 1870. 325 326civil war history and local chapters, for the purpose of persuading Congress, state legislators and the voters, aU white, that manhood suffrage and other rights also belonged to colored people. League conventions, special gatherings, calls for meetings, all with tiiis same purpose, foUowed with startling frequency, considering the Negroes' meagre financial resources. They met, for example, in Galesburg, Indianapolis, and Albany in 1866; Washington and Reading in 1867; Utica in 1868; and Boston, Washington, Birmingham and Pittsburgh in 1869. Colored Uterary societies in Philadelphia and Albany helped to create an atmosphere of cultural striving which, in the minds of the organizers, was alUed with the demand for equal treatment.1 In what Frederick Douglass called the "glare of enthusiasm," ratification became a symbol of success. The power of the Negro people manifested in the achievement of the hour and the potential of the Negro vote, were the promises of the future which echoed from editorial page and church pulpit. In the quickened excitement of 1870, Negroes began to beUeve that tiieir voice would be heard and heeded, that their view of the purpose of reconstruction—the bestowal of equal rights on their race—had gained the ear of the nation. It was not enough for Douglass to warn that "slavery had left its poison behind it, both in the veins of the slave and in those of the enslaver ." It was not enough for him to challenge the view that the Fifteenth Amendment had destroyed aU color distinctions, an assumption he denounced as "uncaUed for, out of time, and hurtful. ..." In the excitement of the moment, Negroes forgot the disappointments of the previous haU-decade during which white voters in almost every northem state rejected equal suffrage. They ignored the growing strength of moderate Republicans whose devotion to equal rights was less than enUiusiastic. The euphoria of ratification made northern Negroes in particular susceptible to a long hangover of despair and regret after 1870. By 1883, one admitted ruefully that "the elevation of the Negro was . . . one of the means adopted to punish the South for their treason "; it had Uttle relation to the crusade for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 325-345
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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