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The shackle broken - by the genius of freedom

An illustration showing Representative Robert B. Elliott speaking in Congress. Representative Elliott was one of the African-Americans elected to Congress during Reconstruction

E. Sachse & Co.

E. Sachse & Co., lithographer. The shackle broken - by the genius of freedom., c1874. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

With the adoption of the 14th Amendment in July 1868, all people born in the United States became citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. The 15th Amendment in 1870 protected Black men’s right to vote. These Constitutional amendments helped prompt many Black men to run for political office. Black voters helped elect many Black local, state, and federal officials in the coming years. Mississippi and South Carolina voters sent the first African-Americans to Congress in 1870 when they elected Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina. This image shows Representative Robert B. Elliott, also a Black politician from South Carolina, giving a speech in the U.S. Congress in 1874. Rep. Elliot’s powerful speech about the importance of legislation to support the civil rights of African-Americans prompted an artist to draw this image. What else do you notice in this drawing? What is the significance of having Black office holders? What can they do with their power?

Under Congressional, or Radical, Reconstruction (as opposed to President Johnson’s plan), southern states had to submit to military districts managed by federal officials. In order to enter back into Congress, southern legislators had to ratify the 14th Amendment and grant voting rights to Black men. In 1870, the states ratified the 15th Amendment granting Black men the constitutional right to vote. Until the late 1870s, when Reconstruction ended, Black men voted in extremely high numbers. In states with a high proportion of African-Americans - South Carolina in particular - these voting rights corresponded with many Black elected officials. Multiple Black Americans served in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives during Reconstruction, with many hundreds of Black Americans serving in state legislatures and local offices during this era. Black southern legislators focused on bringing public education to the South, which was a striking contrast to the pre-Reconstruction period when Southern states had forbidden education for enslaved people. During this era, Black and white legislators in the South also worked to rebuild local economies, where businesses, farms, and infrastructure had all been compromised by the war.

Rep. Elliott argued successfully for the passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal public accommodation regardless of a person’s "nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political." 

Note: the 14th Amendment did not extend to Native Americans. Not until 1924 were Native Americans considered citizens, though some became citizens earlier based on treaties or due to individual actions. Meanwhile, some Native Americans resisted U.S. citizenship as a tool of imperialism.