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America's History in the Making

Reconstructing a Nation

Theme 2

Emancipation was only the beginning of a long road to equality for former slaves, as they improved their lives in the face of strong and determined opposition.

The Civil War was a war of liberation for the nation’s millions of African Americans—nearly nine out of ten had been enslaved at the conflict’s outset. Freedom meant the ability to travel, be paid for one’s labors, have civil rights, and to form families that would not be torn apart. The commonly repeated term “forty acres and a mule” symbolized the former slaves’ hopes that they would receive at least a small chance at making a good living.

Most Southern whites were determined to minimize these freedoms. Throughout Reconstruction, African Americans who asserted themselves risked violence and even death. In addition, as the federal government withdrew from the South, African Americans’ civil and economic rights shrank. However, their determination during these years changed the trajectory of American history.

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