The Arming and Disarming of Black America

When black Americans finally won their Second Amendment rights, white Southerners wielded their own more anarchically than ever before.

Armed freedmen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Library of Congress.

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Adapted from Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson. Published by Prometheus Books.

“Rise Now and Fly to Arms!” That was Henry Highland Garnet’s exhortation to young black men when Abraham Lincoln finally opened the Union Army to black soldiers. A militant Presbyterian minister, Garnet had implored black Americans to fight slavery to the death. And when the opportunity came, he urged young black men to fight for the Union, despite the slights of unequal pay and a long delay before they were deemed worthy to serve.1 As a war hawk, Garnet advocated the ultimate form of political violence. But he also had a keen appreciation for the utility of private violence. He calculated that once black soldiers were armed and trained, America would be unable to deny their freedom, at least “not without a good fight.”2

The end of the Civil War left an army of occupation in the South. The natural tensions of military occupation were exacerbated by black troops. Only a fraction of Union troops occupied the South after the war, and the balance mustered out according to length of service. Because blacks were not admitted into ranks until the middle of the war, they were retained at a higher rate, making the occupying force “blacker” than the one that won the war. The roughly 200,000 black Americans who served in the Union Army comprised an estimated 10 percent of the North’s total fighting force. But by the last quarter of 1865, blacks made up about one-third of the occupation army. Many Southerners took this as a deliberate Union insult.3

And there is good evidence that black soldiers did not treat the returning Confederates delicately. Members of the 35th United States Colored Troops were disciplined for entering the homes of white Charlestonians and confiscating guns. In other cases, black soldiers duplicated the looting and ravaging done to them by their white counterparts during the war.4 In April 1865, soldiers from the 52nd United States Colored Infantry descended on the Vicksburg, Mississippi, plantation of Jared and Minerva Cook. Some of them evidently had been enslaved by Cook before the war. Brandishing revolvers, they demanded that Cook turn over his guns and ransacked the house. Before it was over, they had shot and killed Minerva Cook and wounded Jared. When their crimes were detected, the men were court-martialed, and several of them were hanged.5

The spectacle of black soldiers with guns and the authority of uniforms grated hard on defeated Confederates. Almost as soon as the shooting war stopped, the Southern governments moved to reinstitute slavery through a variety of state and local laws, restricting every aspect of freedmens’ lives. Gun prohibition was a common theme of these “Black Codes.”

In North Carolina, appeals to the governor’s office displayed a simmering fear among defeated rebels about Negroes with guns. One correspondent wrote candidly of his worry that “the design is to organize for a general massacre of the white population. Nearly every Negro is armed not only with a gun [long gun], but a revolver … The meeting of a thousand or two of Negroes every other Sunday, with Officers and Drilling, I think a serious matter.”

These sorts of fears fueled overtly racist gun laws like Mississippi’s Act to Regulate the Relation of Master and Apprentice Relative to Freedmen, which prohibited blacks from owning firearms, ammunition, dirks, or bowie knives.6 Alabama prohibited “any freedman, mulatto or free person of color in this state, to own firearms, or carry about this person a pistol or other deadly weapon.”31 An 1865 Florida law similarly prohibited “Negroes mulattos or other persons of color from possessing guns, ammunition or blade weapons” without obtaining a license issued by a judge on the recommendation of two respectable citizens, presumably white. Violators were punished by public whipping up to “39 stripes.”

The Black Code restrictions were a piece with violent attempts to disarm blacks perpetrated by local police, white state militias, and Klan-type organizations that rose during Reconstruction to wage a war of Southern “redemption.” The formal Ku Klux Klan emerged out of Tennessee in 1866. But across the South, similar organizations cropped up under names like the White Brotherhood, the Knights of the White Camellia, the Innocents, and the Knights of the Black Cross. Black disarmament was part of their common agenda.8

Many black veterans left military service with their issue weapons or war prizes and probably were better armed than the general black population. But the public conversation shows that arms for self-defense were a particular concern of the broad swath of black civilians. Orders and commentary affirming freedmen’s right to keep and bear arms were widely reprinted in black newspapers, and black Americans claiming their constitutional right also sent petitions to Congress protesting racist state gun control laws.

By the end of February 1866, the House of Representatives began debating what became the 14th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which would declare that blacks were full citizens entitled to equal protection and due process under the law.41 Senator Jacob M. Howard of Michigan introduced the proposal, explaining that the “great object” of the amendment is to “restrain the power of the states and compel them in all times to respect these great fundamental guarantees. … Secured by the first eight amendments of the Constitution [including] the right to keep and bear arms.” Concurrent with this debate, Congress also passed legislation abol­ishing Southern state militias. This was necessary, explained one of the sponsors, because the state militias had been used to disarm the freedmen.9

Initially the rebel states unanimously rejected the 14th Amendment. But, chafing under federal military rule and the stipulation that they could not re-enter the Union unless they approved the amendment, they eventually capitu­lated. By 1868, the 14th Amendment was the law of the land and laid a broad foundation for the protection of a range of liberties essential to the rise of the freedmen, including the right to keep and bear arms.

The grand constitutional efforts to affirm the freedmen’s right to arms carried an important symbolism. But for black Americans navigating a multitude of threats after the war, it is hard to overestimate the practical importance of firearms. This is demonstrated dramatically in episodes of gunfire but more prosaically in the accounts of freedmen who never fired their guns—men like Cato Carter, who spent most his life in slavery and then endured what passed for freedom in postwar Texas. So far as we know, Carter never fired a gun in self-defense. Carter confirmed that in some ways freedom was more hazardous than slavery. When white terrorists launched into high gear, Carter was happy to have an effective self-defense tool. Bands of whites, said Carter, “was allus skullduggering ’round at night.” He does not tell where he got it, but Carter calculated that the wise response was to keep and carry a gun to protect his home and family.10

Cato Carter was no aberration. A report from the Texas legislature describes a series of conflicts in the postwar period where freedmen were “generally as well armed as the whites,” and this sort of small-scale parity fueled intermittent black victories. In Washington County, Texas, white men rode out to break up a black political meeting. The whites were armed but not really prepared for a shootout. When they fired into the crowd, the freedmen shot back, scattering their attackers. Later, a white man broke into the home of one of the black organizers and threatened her with a gun. Armed black men tracked him down, arrested him, and turned him over to military authorities.11

Much of the public practice of arms by black Americans in the postwar era was connected to the burgeoning political development of the freedmen. Channeling this political ambition, black chapters of the Union League formed throughout the South. Their secrecy, ritual, late-night meetings, and posting of armed sentinels fueled rumors of armed black men intent on mayhem. Despite the often innocuous content and consequence of Union League meetings, they were, in fact, a venue where black Americans with guns assembled. And sometimes this was more than just for show.

In Harnett County, North Carolina, a league chapter threatened violence to secure release of colored orphans bound out to white planters. A league chapter in Brazos, Texas, under the leadership of Rev. George Brooks, battled a party of the hooded night riders in 1868, and the episode spurred blacks to acquire more guns and step up public military-style drills. Demonstrating that arms are no guarantee of safety, league leader George Brooks was subsequently murdered.

White backlash against rising black political power and the specter of armed freedmen was multilayered. Confederates had lost the war of secession but now were battling for the soul of the South. Fear of Negro rule unified whites and fueled political violence in ways that nothing else could. Occupation by black troops, black suffrage, and the rise of black Americans to office generated resentment and resistance. Through rough politics, trickery, and violence, the white South would soon “redeem” its institutions and culture from the revolutionary social inversion of Reconstruction. This Southern “Redemption,” solidified by federal abdication on Reconstruction, resubordinated blacks and carried deadly lessons about the risks of political violence and the importance of private self-defense.

Whether as police forces, private militias, or terrorist nightriders, ex-Confederates pursued a ruthless campaign of political violence to disarm and dis­enfranchise blacks. Operating under the loose imprimatur of law, bands of white militia raided Negro homes, searching and seizing firearms. For blacks, the distinction between these official militias and terrorist organizations like the KKK was often thin. Sometimes there was not even a pretense of distinction. Witness Col. Roger Moore, commander of the New Hanover County, North Carolina, militia, who also headed the Wilmington KKK.12

The places where blacks were a clear majority of the population raise pointed questions about the risks and opportunities of armed resistance against the forces of Southern Redemption. In Mississippi, for example, violence and the threat of it suppressed the black vote in 1875 and gave Democrats control in counties where blacks constituted two-thirds (Oktibbeha and Amite Counties) to three-fourths (Lowndes County) of the population.

From what we can tell today, whites were better organized, better armed, and potentially more desperate in the fight against Negro rule, which to them represented a world gone mad. A crucial aspect of the Democrats’ victory in these counties was disarmament of black Republicans. The assessment of Albert Morgan, formerly Republican sheriff of Yazoo County, Mississippi, and ally of carpetbag Gov. Adelbert Ames, is instructive. Both Morgan and Ames fled Mississippi in the wake of the Democratic ascent. Morgan lamented his potential role in that rise, explaining, “When the general arming of the whites first became known to me … I counseled the colored man against irregular arming, advising all to rely upon the law and its officers. I hoped by steadfastly pursuing this course, by offering no pretext for violence, we might pass the ordeal I saw approaching.” Acknowledging the tactical error, Morgan conceded, “I was unused to guerrilla warfare.”

The end of Reconstruction opened the period some would call the nadir of the black experience in America. The political outlook was dim. Black political aspirations had been quashed by a program of violence, fraud, and federal abdication. Many have chronicled this story, but one of the best summaries comes from a black man of the times. In 1884, black publisher T. Thomas Fortune said this.13

It is sufficient to know that anarchy prevailed in every southern state; that a black man’s life was not worth the having; that armed bodies of men openly defied the Constitution of the United States and nullified each and every one of its guaran­tees of citizenship to the colored man. Thousands of black men were shot down like sheep and not one of the assassins was ever hung by the neck until he was dead.

With the diminishing promises of citizenship came greater personal exposure to violence. This posed a profound dilemma. State and local governments would grow increasingly hostile to Negroes. The notion of relying on the state for personal security or anything else would seem increasingly absurd against the rise of convict-labor schemes, state-sponsored Jim Crow rules, and lynch law.

It was an important moment in the black tradition of arms. After 1877, there were growing reasons to believe that whatever blacks now had in the political arena was all they would get. But even as it became impractical for black Americans to advance their rights through political violence, gun ownership could provide them an essential means of private self-defense. In the dangerous times to come, black Americans pushed to the wall by violent threats would be very much on their own. They would have to decide whether to just crumple or to stand and fight.

Adapted from Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson (Prometheus Books, 2014). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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1. Martin B. Pasternak, “Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet,” Ph.D. dissertation Univ. Mass. (1981) at xi.

2. Barnet Schecter, The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (2005) at 99, 301.

3. Richard M. Reid, Freedom for Themselves (2008) at 255; Stephen Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (2003) at 133.

4. Reid, at 273–274.

5. Waldrep, Roots of Disorder, at 94.

6. Stephen P. Halbrook, Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866–1876 (1998) at 2, 12.

7. Nicholas Johnson, David Kopel, George Mocsary, and Michael O’Shea, Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy (2012) at 290–292.

8. Hahn, at 267.

9. Johnson et al., “Public Meaning,” at 860-861; Cong. Globe, 39th Cong., 2nd Sess. 1848 (1868).

10. Kenneth W. Howell, Still the Arena of Civil War: Violence and Turmoil in Reconstruction Texas, 1865–1874 (2012) at 296.

11. Halbrook, at 97; Donald G. Nieman, “African-American Communities, Politics, and Justice: Washington County Texas, 1865–1890,” in Christopher Waldrep and Donald Nieman, Local Matters: Race Crime and Justice in the 19th Century South (2011) at 204, 205.  

12. Evans, at 80–81, 84–85, 101–02.  

13. Shawn Leigh Alexander, An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP (2012) at 3–4.