The Ancestors Of George & Hazel Mullins

by Philip Mullins

Chapter 12 - The Reconstruction Years


Population by race, Mississippi
12-2 (Click to enlarge)

Summary: Following the Civil War the US Army occupied the State of Mississippi. Control of the state government was given to the Republican Party and the freedmen. After several years the Confederate veterans regained control of the state by disfranchising the freedmen.

By 1873 many Simmons men were involved in local Democratic Party politics. After 1890 practically all black, and the majority of white farmers, were removed from the voter's rolls by the poll tax. It was not until 1903 that the small farmers regained control of the state government from the merchants and industrialists.

The War's aftermath

The last of the Confederate soldiers returned home. Some had been away for four years in Federal prisons, their families having given them up for dead. Many were wounded or disabled. Some were restless and bitter about the war. They returned home to find things changed, the slaves freed, the farms in disrepair and the population disgruntled. Most of the veterans were home by late spring of 1865 and they were able to get in a late crop of cotton and corn. In 1865 and 1866 cotton sold for the unbelievably high price of 50 cents a pound, up from 11 cents in 1855. This helped those able to farm but there remained a great many families of widows and of disabled men who remained destitute. In general Pike County remained economically depressed throughout the 1860s. The white population of the county actually declined from 6,442 in 1860 to 5,991 in 1870. The black population increased by 13% from 4,693 to 5,312 but the total population of Pike County increased by only 1% between 1860 and 1870. In the next decade there would be a population increase of 47% and, between 1880 and 1890, another 27% increase.

The years immediately after the war were marked by confusion and immense change. The change was especially radical for the former slaves. In most cases the Negroes were available for work. They were legally free but were without land, tools or capital. They preferred not to return to gang labor on the farms. Instead many of them drifted to the nearest town where there was a garrison of Federal troops. They could get food there. This created a shortage of laborers and also caused problems for their abandoned families and for the Federal authorities in the towns. After a while the military commanders developed a system of written contracts between the freedmen and the white farmers. The contracts regulated employment on the farms. In some counties the Federal authorities developed a pass system to prevent the blacks from leaving the farms and loitering in the towns.

As soon as Mississippi surrendered its troops to the Federal government in May 1865, the state Governor called a special session of the legislature. He did this with the advice and consent of the senior Federal and Confederate military officers in the state. However in June this governor was arrested for treason and imprisoned in a US Army base in Savannah, Georgia. The legislature adjourned when the commander of a brigade of Negro troops threaten to arrest them as well. In August 1865 a provisional governor for the state was appointed by US President Andrew Johnson. The provisional governor called for a constitutional convention to draft a new state constitution to replace the state's Confederate constitution. The delegates to this convention were white Whigs along with some Democrats. None of them wanted to deal with the question of slavery. They believed that under the terms of the armistice, this was to be left up to the Supreme Court of the United States. The convention repealed the ordinance of secession and called for new elections under the old constitution.

Mississippi is placed under martial law

In the elections in October a new Democratic governor, US Senators, US Representatives and a new legislature, almost all Democrats, were elected. The new governor vowed to accept the results of the war in good faith but the 1866-1867 session of the legislature could not satisfy the expectations of the Federal government. For one thing the legislature refused to ratify the 13th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment, among other things, forbade compensation of the former slave owners and prevented most Confederate officials from holding public office. The legislature felt that it was punitive in its tone and in its content and refused to ratify either one. In retaliation for Mississippi's refusal to accept these Constitutional Amendments, the US Congress refused to seat Mississippi's Congressional delegation. In March 1867 Mississippi and Arkansas were placed in the Fourth Military District by an Act of the US Congress. The State of Mississippi was now under martial law. The governor appealed to the US Supreme Court but it refused to intervene.

A military governor, now exercising dictatorial powers, called a new convention to draft a state constitution. All ex-Confederate soldiers and officials were disfranchised. This new convention consisted mostly of Republicans. It was nicknamed the "black and tan convention" because a majority of the delegates were Negro. The convention wrote a new state constitution resembling the old one of 1832 except that it disfranchised Confederate veterans. In June 1868 the new constitution was defeated by the voters 63,860 to 55,231 despite the fact that a majority of the voters were black. In the same election the Democratic candidate for governor won re-election.

By 1868 only Mississippi, Texas and Virginia remained outside of the Union and the US Congress was growing impatient with the refusal of the Mississippi voters to do as the military wanted. The military governor responded to the election of 1868 by suspending all civil government. In 1869 the army appointed another provisional governor and troops occupied the office and the mansion of the governor. Troops, armed with bayonets, refused to allow the elected governor to enter his office. All officials in the state who could not take an oath declaring that they had been neither soldiers nor officials of the Confederacy were removed from office. US President Grant modified the state constitution that had been rejected by the voters in June 1868 and resubmitted it to the voters. In November 1869 it was accepted by the majority of the state's voters.

Democratic and Republican parties compete for power

In September 1869 the National Union Republican Party of Mississippi held its first convention in Jackson. The Republicans adopted a slate of candidates for the November elections. Most of the Democrats realized that the US Army would not accept a Democratic state government so they concurred with the Republican choice of candidates. The elections returned a Republican governor and a Republican majority in the state legislature. 64 of the 152 seats were won by Negroes and 24 more by white "carpet baggers." Carpet bagger was a derogatory term used for white Republicans from outside the state who became involved in the state government. Most of the carpet baggers were abolitionists who were concerned about the plight of the freedmen. Others were opportunists. In January 1870 the old provisional governor, now an elected US Senator, saw to it that the legislature passed the 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution. The 15th Amendment guaranteed that the freedmen could vote. Once these two amendments were ratified in February 1870 Mississippi was re-admitted to the Union.

In Pike County a similar struggle was taking place between the military, the freedmen and the whites, both Republican and Democratic. The Federal army quartered troops in several towns in the county. A company of Negro troops were stationed in Holmesville. Squads of both cavalry and infantry were dispatched to investigate complaints of ill-treatment of Negroes and Republicans and disloyalty to the US and to demonstrate to the farmers that the US military was in full control.

In the elections held immediately after the end of the war Pike County elected a new sheriff. However the new sheriff had been a Confederate soldier and could not take the oath of loyalty. To circumvent this difficulty the sheriff's brother was appointed to complete the term and the elected sheriff was hired as a deputy. In June 1868 the military governor ejected them both and appointed a man from outside the state to be the sheriff of Pike County. This man was himself white but he made the mistake of using Negro deputies to arrest a prominent white citizen. Shortly afterward he was waylaid and murdered. It was widely known that he had been assassinated by white vigilantes.

Although the Republican Party ran the state government from 1869 until 1875 and although the majority of the Republican voters were blacks, all appointees were native whites after 1870. Most men appointed to state positions were Republicans. The Republican Party counted many prominent men among its 5,000 white supporters, many of them Confederate veterans. A well-respected man from Summit was an important leader of the Republican Party in Mississippi and he was consistently elected mayor of that town during this period. Most of these white Republicans were men of property. Prior to the Civil War they had belonged to the Whig Party. The Whig Party had been the party of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and the young Abraham Lincoln before he became a Republican. The party's main concern was to protect property rights. The Whigs represented the nation's financial, commercial and industrial interests. The southern Whigs had voted for Bell and against secession in 1860, as had 40% of Mississippi's electors. Yet the Whigs felt compelled to follow their State out of the Union. They assumed command of the Confederate armies and governments. In 1863 the Whig Party had gained control of the legislature and the governorship of Mississippi from the Democrats.

After the war many of these gentlemen joined the Republican Party. About 25% to 30% of Mississippi's white voters were Republicans. Between 1870 and 1875 they held one-third of high offices in the state government. They fully supported civil rights and legal equality for the blacks. They favored public education, state subsidies for the construction of levees along the Mississippi River and use of state money for the repair and expansion of the railroad system. They wanted lower land taxes and supported the leasing of state convicts to the new industries that were emerging in the State. It was these men who formed partnerships with northern industrialists to exploit the pine forests of southeast Mississippi. As a group they believed that the South's best hope for the future was to move away from an economy based on agriculture and towards some kind of alliance with the industrialized states of New England.

The Whigs and the Democrats were traditional enemies. In the elections of October 1865 the so-called Confederate Democrats regained control of the State. It took the US Army and the increasingly hostile national Republican Party until 1869 to oust these unrepentant Confederates from the state house. In the meantime the Whigs were forming business links with northern capitalists and spoke for compromise and accommodation with the victorious Republicans who controlled the Federal government. In the fall of 1869 they helped organize the Mississippi Republican Party.

Six years of Republican rule

Between 1869, when the old Democratic "Bourbon" leaders were ousted, and 1875, when the Democrats regained control, the Republican Party welded considerable power in the State. The majority of the Legislature, the congressional delegation and many state officials were Republicans. In the presidential election of 1872 a majority of the eligible voters voted for Republican candidates. In 1873 the same year that Solomon O. Simmons was elected to the Pike County Board of Supervisors all but one of the Mississippi congressional delegation were Republicans. The next year the Republican governor won election without opposition from the Democrats. For this brief period the Whigs had a chance to implement their program of industrialization, civil rights and racial integration. However their program of moderation and compromise was caught between two strident opponents. The administration of President Grant became increasingly corrupt and ineffective as the 1860s worn on. The national Republican Party became increasingly anti-Southern and vindictive and refused to compromise with the southern Whigs, much less the Democrats. In 1873, supported by the national Republican Party, carpetbaggers gained control of the Mississippi Republican Party. At the same time the Democrats launched a campaign of race propaganda. There was little room left for the Whig program of compromise. When the color line was clearly drawn by both the Republicans and the Democrats, the Whigs, by and large, went with the Democrats. A few, such as the mayor of Summit, remained with the Republican Party the rest of their public careers. Once the Whigs joined the Democratic Party they quickly assumed control of it.

The six year period from 1869 to 1875 is called the Reconstruction period in Mississippi. In reality six years of Republican rule did little to reconstruct the state. The meager assistance given to the freedmen by the Federal government was not sufficient to lift them out of their ignorance and poverty. Even though the Republicans practically bankrupt the state trying to do so, it proved to be impossible to prepare the freedmen for life in a capitalist economy overnight. One of the first acts of the Republican legislature was to establish a State Board of Education. In 1869 the school land tax was 10 cents on every dollar of assessed valuation. By 1871 the school tax was 40 cents, by 1872 it was 85 cents and by 1874 the school tax was $1.40 for every dollar of assessed valuation. Yet it was not until 1878, after the Democrats had regained control of the state, that free public schools were funded by the legislature. The tax rate rose every year partly because of increasing expenditures but also because property values decreased by $42,000,000 between 1871 and 1875. The state had become so impoverished that by 1875 27% of the land area of the state had been forfeited for taxes.

Resentment of the state government intensified in 1874 and 1875. In 1875 anti-tax riots broke out in Yazoo City and Clinton and other towns when the sheriffs tied to sell tax-delinquent property. The Republican governor called upon the US President to send troops to protect him but President Grant refused. The wealthy people of the state had been ruined by the loss of their slaves and the repudiation of all Confederate bonds and money. The Federal government, under the control of the Republicans, would not even consider compensation for damages arising from the war. They also refused to allocate money for the kinds of internal improvements that it funded so lavishly in the North. All this, the nationwide recession of 1873 and the increasingly high land taxes stalled the South's recovery from the war. It also convinced the old Whig leadership that their interests were being betrayed by both the Republicans and the northern Democrats. They began to leave the Republican Party at about the same time as the Democrats launched a campaign to regain control of the state.

In 1875 the state Democratic executive committee engineered what proved to a successful strategy to get rid of the Republicans. Democratic Clubs were organized everywhere throughout the state. In October 1875 a club was organized in Osyka. The election of 1875 took place only a few months after the Pike County Courthouse was moved from Holmesville to Magnolia. Holmesville was the original county seat but the town was doomed to decline when the railroad was built a few miles west in 1857. The town dried up and Pike County, like many Mississippi counties, decided to move its courthouse to a larger town on the railroad. The move caused a lot of bitterness but the move was not itself an issue in the elections. The issue was white control. The Democrats used intimidation and fraud on a wide scale and they won the elections that year.

In Pike County the Republican candidate for sheriff was a former officer of the Quitman Guards. He won his election but the Democrats won the other countywide seats. In Magnolia and Summit Republican mayors were elected but in both towns the councilmen were Democrats. Silas Simmons, a grandson of Ann Simmons, ran successfully for Surveyor of Pike County. Twelve years later he served two years as one of the two members of the Mississippi House of Representatives from Pike County.

The Compromise of 1877

The following year, 1876, was dominated by political agitation on the state and national levels. Nationally the struggle of Rutherford B. Hayes of the GOP and Samuel Tilden of the Democratic Party for the Presidency produced a tie in the Electoral College. The Democratic candidate received a quarter of a million popular votes more than had Rutherford B. Hayes but their electoral votes were tied. According to the US Constitution, in the event of a tie in the Electoral College the US Congress has to choose the winner. The Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats the House. Since each house of Congress voted along strictly partisan lines, Congress was deadlocked. Therefore Congress created an Electoral Commission to decide the issue. By a remarkable twist of fate the Republicans were given a majority of one on the Commission. The Electoral Commissioners, like the Congress, voted along strictly partisan lines on every question. In an increasingly tense atmosphere, the official count of the election returns of November 1876 was delayed until March 1877. The Democratic majority in the country became more and more alarmed with each passing day. The governors of several states called out their militia, business came to a standstill and it appeared that another civil war would break out.

At issue were the electoral votes of Florida and Louisiana. In both states the Republican state governments, kept in office by the US Army, used blatant fraud to ensure a Republican majority. Despite the obviously manipulated vote counts, the Electoral Commission upheld all disputed Republican claims and disallowed all of the Democratic claims. On each question the Republicans on the Commission won by one vote. The Democrats controlling the House of Representatives refused to accept the Commission's final report. Instead they began a long filibuster. Finally acting on their own and without the knowledge or support of the other Democrats, the Southern Democrats from the old Confederacy agreed to a compromise with the Republicans in which they were to get the cabinet position of Postmaster General, money for internal improvements in the southern states, Federal money for a railroad through Texas and control of the state governorships in Louisiana and South Carolina. In return the Southern Democrats in the House agreed to accept the Electoral Commission's report. The Democratic presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, also accepted the compromise and thereby probably prevented another civil war.

As part of the Compromise of 1876 the sole Democratic Congressman from Mississippi supported the Electoral Commission's choice of the Republican candidate for US President. In return for his support the Federal government agreed not to interfere in state affairs. Federal troops were withdrawn from the state. The Compromise of 1876 effectively ended Reconstruction and gave the Democrats a free hand in their choice of tactics in dealing with the local Republicans. In Mississippi a coalition of Whigs and Democrats challenged the Republicans even before the 1876 Presidential elections. They threatened to impeach the Negro Superintendent of Education on charges of bribery and misuse of public funds. After the Democrats won a majority in the legislature in 1876, he was impeached. He resigned in February 1876. Shortly afterward the Negro Lieutenant-Governor was successfully impeached on a bribery charge. In March the white governor, also facing an impeachment trial, resigned his office as well. In the spring of 1876 the Republican state nominating convention refused to place blacks on the ticket. A split occurred between the blacks, who formed a majority of the party, and their white leadership.

Meanwhile the Democrats continued to organize local clubs. W. Fleet Simmons and Ephraim Prescott, a son-in-law of William Simmons, were members of the Pike County Democratic Executive Committee. In 1876 they organized the Hancock Democratic Club of Osyka with 57 white and 10 black members. The Tilden-for-President Democratic Club in the Kelly precinct of Pike County had two black and a number of white members from the area around Mt. Zion Church. Columbus W. Simmons was President of the Club, his brother Robert L. Simmons was Secretary and his cousin Silas M. Simmons, now the County Surveyor, was Vice-President. Separate Negro Democratic Clubs were organized in some places. There was a Tilden Colored Democratic Club in Magnolia but its members were ostracized by the black community. By and large the "color line" had been drawn by both the Democrats and the Republicans and few men cared to cross it. The Democrats were eager to recruit black members for propaganda purposes but were equally intent on creating the impression among whites that the Republican Party was the party of and for the black man.

In addition to out-organizing the Republicans, the Democrats used extra-legal methods to ensure victory in 1876. On the eve of the election a torch light horseback procession made a circuit of the county, beginning in Magnolia and proceeding to Holmesville, Tylertown and then back to Magnolia. These men were not masked and there was a Negro Democrat in the procession but the late-night procession reminded many blacks that terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan drew their support from among the Democrats.

In southwestern Mississippi and the Florida parishes of Louisiana the term "bulldoze" refered to a secret farmer's organization that used threats of violence against their enemies, principally merchants and cattle thieves. This secret organization served as a model for some of the anti-Negro groups that were important during this period. The White League and the Ku Klux had both surfaced several years before following an assault upon a white girl. The girl had been assaulted, her throat cut and she had been left for dead. Her assailant, an ex-slave of the girl's family, was caught and sentenced to prison. This sort of crime, harking back to the fear of "the black menace", traumatized the white community. The extremists seized upon it to inflame racial tensions. Both the White League and the Ku Klux Klan used terror tactics against blacks and their white allies. The KKK or Klan was well organized and capable of extreme violence and great shows of force. The legendary white sheet, the KKK uniform, was designed to be hidden under a saddle blanket and quickly put on and taken off. Serious KKK work was rarely done in one's home precinct and on occasion vigilante groups from Louisiana paid visits in strength to McComb and Summit. As a result of such a visit by the KKK in 1876, a company of US Cavalry was stationed in McComb to protect the US Deputy Revenue Collector who had his office there. The blacks also organized secret groups and about the same time a large band of armed Negroes were abroad in West Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. They killed several whites before the US Cavalry tracked them down and hung their leaders.

Often the distinction between terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux and the White League and legal groups such as the Democratic Precinct Clubs was not clear. On at least one occasion people were ordered to leave the county by a local Democratic Club with a threat of violence and, because of a well-founded fear, they did leave. In Pike County the Democrats purchased a supply of gun powder and kept up a pine log cannonade all night on the eve of the election of 1876. This reinforced the impression made by the midnight ride around the county by mounted Democrats. They created the strong impression that there was, indeed, little distinction between the Democratic Party and the White League and the KKK. The next day many Negroes did not even try to vote. Others were frightened away from the polls by sham battles being fought in the streets by the Democrats. The Republican leaders absolutely failed to get out the Negro vote. White Republicans resisted the intimidation that kept their black fellows from voting but the white Democrats formed a solid bloc vote that was difficult to defeat even without the terror. As a result, the Democrats won the elections of 1876 handily. The 1877 the State Legislature had 26 Democrats and 11 Republicans in the Senate and 96 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the House. The Democratic candidate for US President carried Mississippi as well.

The white managers of the Republican Party in Mississippi were discredited by their failure to rally the Negroes to their support in the election. They probably fully understood the implications of the Compromise of 1876 for their future as a political party. In July 1877 they disbanded the Mississippi Republican Party. Negro leaders revived the organization and continued to field candidates. In some locales they continued to win elections but after the election of 1884 the Republican Party ceased to be a power in the state. After that, and until the effective disfranchisement of the Negroes in 1903, the Democrats were given control of the Negro vote in return for minor offices in some counties and towns.

The Poll Tax

Until the end of the 1880s practically every adult male in Mississippi was entitled to vote. This produced a majority of black voters. This fact forced the Democrats to stuff the ballot boxes, commit perjury and, in some places, use fraud and violence in order to control the Negro majority. This was acceptable to them as long as the whites were united. However by the late 1880s cracks were beginning to show in the united front that the Confederate veterans had presented to the blacks and the Republicans. Differences between the farmers and the merchants and bankers became more and more evident. Whites no longer voted as a bloc. Some white Democratic candidates begain to use electoral fraud against other white Democrats. At the same time there was a growing sentiment for genuine democratic reform. The corrupt practices designed to control the Negro vote were widely seen as corrupting the entire body politic.

After years of discussion a convention was called in 1890 to rewrite the state constitution to legally exclude as many blacks as possible from the voters list. The delegates considered many alternatives before they decided to add a poll tax of two dollars a year and a requirement that every voter be able to read or interpret any section of the state constitution. This so-called "Mississippi Plan" was accepted by the US Supreme Court and most Southern states copied it to disfranchise their black citizens. As a result, after 1890, the Negro vote, and the Republican Party, has been a negligible factor in state-wide elections in Mississippi until very recent years. The results of the changes were dramatic. In 1890 there were 70,000 more Negro voters than white voters. In 1892 the rolls of eligible voters contained just 8,615 blacks out of a total of 76,742 voters.

An unintended effect of the Mississippi Plan was to strike tens of thousands of white men from the voters list as well. In 1890 there had been 120,000 white voters. In 1892 only 68,000 remained on the rolls. In 1899 the average annual income of Mississippi farmers was $411. Since the law required poll receipts for the two years previous before the voter could be registered, if a farmer fell behind even one year the cost became excessive. Only a small minority of whites paid their poll taxes and could vote. In 1901 out of 140,000 otherwise eligible white voters, only 30,000 paid the $2 poll tax and were registered. It was believed that the wide-spread apathy caused by the poll tax allowed corrupt politicians to control the state government.

The Democrats encouraged the belief that Republican control of the state government from 1869 until 1876 had been "ruinous" to Mississippi. The Republicans had indeed attempted an impossible feat: the integration of the former slaves into the economic and political life of the state. The coercion and force that had characterized Reconstruction and the failure of the Federal government to prove financial aid to reconstruct the South doomed the effort. The Democrats, having completely abandoned the former slaves, also failed to protect the underclass of white farmers. By 1916 after 40 years of "Caucasian rule", the state government had become a milk cow for the small group of politicians who controlled the Democratic Party. Between 1880 and 1900, first the Farmer's Alliance and then the Populist Party, challenged this elite for control of the state government. However it was not until 1903 that the farmers and workers of Mississippi once again found a voice in the state house. That opportunity came as a result of the adoption of the party primary election.

The disfranchisement of the Negroes

When the system of primary elections was adopted in 1903, blacks were excluded from participation in the Democratic Party primary by a rule of the party. Nomination by the Democratic Party in Mississippi was equivalent to election. Being excluded from the primary was, in effect, disfranchisement for the Negroes. Occasionally, when there were fractional struggles for local control, Negroes would be allowed to vote in the Democratic primary by one faction or the other. This happened in Pike County in 1915 when Bilbo was nominated for governor. However their participation was illegal and tightly controlled.

The Compromise of 1876 had resulted in the loss of the Negro's voting rights. The consequences of the Compromise of 1876 were accepted by the Federal government for three generations. Finally in 1944 the US Supreme Court ruled that Negroes could not be barred from the Democratic primary. Within ten years many Negroes did register and vote even though the poll tax and the literacy requirement remained as a deterrent. It was not until 1956 that the Federal government broke with the Compromise of 1876 and launched a legal campaign to restore civil rights to the Negroes of the South. By then the South had regained sufficient economic strength to integrate the blacks into its increasingly industrialized society. It is likely that the Negroes of the South would not have had to wait one hundred years for the fruits of freedom if the Federal government had truly reconstructed the South after the Civil War.

John A. Hayes (1870)

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