The Vault

Proof That Black Politicians Helped Freedpeople During Reconstruction

A new economic analysis shows that black officeholders raised literacy rates, among other boons, for the newly freed.

Commemorative card of black and white Radical legislators in South Carolina during Reconstruction.
“Radical members of the first legislature after the war, South Carolina.” 1876. Detail of original card.
Library of Congress

In a new working paper published on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Trevor Logan describes his efforts to understand the effects black officeholders had on life in the Reconstruction-era South. In the final analysis, Logan argues, counties with black officials took in more taxes, had more black tenant farmers (who earned more money than farmhands or sharecroppers), and achieved higher rates of literacy among the black population. “The causal effect of politicians was acute,” the economist concludes. “Black politicians during Reconstruction mattered.”

As Jamelle Bouie and I discussed on an episode of our Slate Academy on Reconstruction, Southern white supremacists, unsympathetic Northern onlookers, and historians working before the middle of the 20th century were united in the belief that black lawmakers and officials were incompetent, illiterate, and corrupt. More recently, historians have come to see the interracial governments of Reconstruction as no more or less corrupt than comparable whites-only governments. Logan’s findings support the conclusion that interracial governments improved freedpeople’s daily lives.

To figure out the relationship between the election of black officeholders and the bettering of the freedpeople’s lot, Logan used the directory of black officeholders that historian Eric Foner compiled and first published in 1995. Foner’s work is notable for its unprecedented completism—the book cataloged the biographies of more than 1,500 black judges, legislators, constables, and other elected and appointed officials.

Comparing the presence of black officeholders to recorded county taxes per capita, Logan found that each black official in a county came along with an increase in taxes by $0.20 (“more than an hour’s wage at the time,” Logan points out). One of the public goods those taxes paid for was education, and the effects of the investment showed. “Exposure to black politicians,” Logan writes, “decreased the black-white literacy gap by more than 7%.”

While Radical Republicans hoped that higher taxes would also encourage white landowners to sell their land in small parcels that freedpeople could buy, historians have found that this was not the case, and Logan’s findings align with theirs. Logan did find, however, that higher taxes went along with a bigger share of tenant farms in a county—a change that “suggests a marginal improvement in black economic position.”

Unfortunately, after Reconstruction ended, and white supremacists removed black politicians from office (often by force), these trends did not stick. “When whites reclaimed control of political offices during Redemption,” Logan writes, “tax revenue in areas where blacks held political leadership declined substantially.” Policies enacted by the decades of whites-only governments that impoverished and disenfranchised black Southerners during Jim Crow had far stronger staying power.