Black History Timeline: 1865–1869

Key Events

A print of the celebration of the 15th Amendment
Celebration of the 15th Amendment.

Universal History Archive / Getty Images

In just four short years, the lives of enslaved and already freed African Americans would change drastically. From being granted freedom in 1865 to citizenship in 1868, the years directly after the Civil War would be vital not just to the rebuilding of the United States, but to the ability of Black Americans to become full citizens.

1865

Abraham Lincoln

Getty Images

January 16: General William T. Sherman issues Special Order No. 15, granting 400,000 acres of coastal land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to newly freed African Americans. The New Georgia Encyclopedia explains the details:

"Sherman's order came on the heels of his successful March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah and just prior to his march northward into South Carolina. Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, for some time had pushed for land redistribution in order to break the back of Southern slaveholders' power."

January 31: Abraham Lincoln signs the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment outlaws enslavement. Ratified just months after the end of the American Civil War, the amendment also ends involuntary servitude—except as a punishment for a crime. It is ratified by the states on December 6.

February 1: Attorney John S. Rock becomes the first African American admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court after anti-enslavement U.S. Senator Charles Sumner introduces a motion at the court. A former grammar school teacher, dentist, and doctor (who had operated his own dental and medical practices), Rock is "a tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery. Like Frederick Douglass, he (is) an enthusiastic recruiter for the black volunteer regiments from Massachusetts," according to the Library of Congress.

March 3: Congress creates the Freedmen's Bureau. The purpose of the Bureau is to provide health care, education, and other assistance to formerly enslaved people. Officially called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the bureau—which is also set up to help White people—is considered the first federal agency devoted to the social welfare of Americans.

April 9: The Civil War ends when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. With his army surrounded on three sides, Lee accepts the inevitable by stating:

"Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths." 

April 14: Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington D.C. Booth actually has several unsuccessful co-conspirators: Lewis Powell (or Paine/Payne) attempts to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, but only injures him. David Herold accompanies Powell but flees before the deed is finished. At the same time, George Atzerodt is supposed to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Atzerodt does not go through with the assassination.

June 19: Black Americans in Texas receive news that enslavement has ended. This date is celebrated as Juneteenth. The term, a blend of the words "June" and "nineteenth," is also also known as America's second Independence Day, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day. The day—still celebrated annually today—honors enslaved people, African American heritage, and the many contributions that Black people have made to the United States.

Former Confederate states establish Black Codes, laws to disenfranchise African Americans. The codes are vagrancy laws that allow authorities to arrest formerly enslaved people and force them into involuntary labor, which is essentially re-enslavement. Under the codes, all Black people are subject to curfews set by their local governments. Violating one of the codes requires offenders to pay fines. Since many Black people are paid low wages during this period or denied employment, paying these fees is often impossible and they are hired out to employers until they work off their balances in an enslavement-like environment.

December 24: Six former members of the Confederacy organize the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. The society, organized to assert white supremacy, uses various acts of violence to terrorize Black people in the South. The klan functions as the unofficial paramilitary arm of Southern segregationist governments, allowing its members to kill with impunity and allows Southern segregationists to eliminate activists by force without alerting federal authorities.

1866

Buffalo Soldiers
The Buffalo Soldiers. MPI / Getty Images

January 9: Fisk University convenes for classes in Nashville, Tennessee, a pioneer among the historically Black colleges and universities. The school was actually established in 1865 by John Ogden, the Reverend Erastus Milo Cravath, and the Reverend Edward P. Smith, according to the school's website.

June 13: Congress approves the 14th Amendment, granting Black Americans citizenship. The amendment also guarantees due process and equal protection under the law to all citizens. The approval sends the amendment to the states for ratification, which they do two years later. The U.S. Senate website explains that the amendment:

"(Grants) citizenship to all persons 'born or naturalized in the United States,' including formerly enslaved people, and (provides) all citizens with 'equal protection under the laws,' extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states."

May 1–May 3: An estimated 46 Black people are murdered and many others are injured at the hands of White people in the Memphis Massacre. Ninety homes, 12 schools, and four churches are torched. The riot ignites when a White police officer attempts to arrest a Black ex-soldier and about 50 Black people intervene.

Four Black regiments are established in the U.S. Army. They are known as the . Until the Spanish-American War, Black soldiers can only serve in the 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments as well as the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.

1867

Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

January 1: Visual artist and sculptor Edmonia Lewis creates Forever Free, a sculpture commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment and depicting a Black man and woman celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation. Lewis creates other noted sculptures, including Hagar in the Wilderness (1868), The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872), and The Death of Cleopatra (1875). Deeply affected by the intense racism and lack of opportunity for Black artists in the United States, Lewis moves to Rome in 1865, where she creates Forever Free and the other sculptures noted here. Of the move, she notes:

"I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor."

January 10: African Americans residing in Washington, D.C. are granted the right to vote after Congress overrides Andrew Johnson's veto. Shortly after, Congress passes the Territorial Suffrage Act, giving Black Americans the right to vote in the West.

February 14: Morehouse College is founded as Augusta Theological Institute. That same year, several other African American colleges are founded including Howard University, Morgan State College, Talladega College, St. Augustine's College, and Johnson C. Smith College. Over the next century and a half, Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard Jackson, Spike Lee, and many other world-changing Black American men will attend Morehouse.

March: Congress passes the Reconstruction Acts. Through these acts, Congress can divide 10 out of 11 former Confederate states into military districts and reorganize the state governments of the former Confederacy. The First Reconstruction Act, the one that Congress passes this month, is also known as the Military Reconstruction Act. It divides the former Confederate states into five Military Districts, each governed by a Union general. The act places the Military Districts under martial law, with Union troops deployed to keep the peace and protect formerly enslaved persons. Passage of more Reconstruction Acts, which specify the conditions under which the formerly seceded Southern states of the Confederacy can be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, continues through 1868.

1868

Ulysses S. Grant

PhotoQuest / Getty Images

July 28: The 14th Amendment is ratified to the Constitution. The amendment grants citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States. The amendment, along with the 13th and 15th amendments, are collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Although the 14th Amendment is intended to protect the rights of formerly enslaved people, it has continued to play a major role in constitutional politics to this day.

September 28: The Opelousas Massacre takes place. White Americans in opposition to reconstruction and African American voting kill an estimated 250 African Americans in Opelousas, Louisiana.

November 3: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant is elected president. His administration is beset by scandals during his two terms, and historians later rank him as being among the country's worst presidents. But, a century-and-a-half after leaving office, Grant's legacy undergoes a reappraisal, with the president winning plaudits for his pursuing a reform agenda in the South, attempting to quash the KKK, and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1975.

November 3: John Willis Menard becomes the first African American elected to Congress. Representing Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District, Menard is not able to be seated as a result of an election dispute, despite receiving 64% of the vote. According to the Office of Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives, during a speech on the House floor in 1869—the only one he would make—Maynard argues his case, stating:

"I would feel myself recreant to do the duty imposed upon me if I did not defend their rights in this floor...I do not expect nor do I ask that there shall be any favor shown me on account of my race or former condition of that race."

November 5: Howard University Medical School opens, becoming the first in the United States to train African American doctors.

1869

Harvard Law School's Langdell Hall
Harvard Law School's Langdell Hall.

Darren McCollester / Getty Images

February 27: The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing African American men the right to vote, is sent by Congress for the states' approval. The amendment is ratified by the states in 1870.

Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett becomes the first African American diplomat and presidential appointee when he is made minister to Haiti. Bassett had also been the first Black American to graduate from Connecticut State University (in 1853). Bassett would serve in the post until 1877.

December 6: The Colored National Labor Union is established by Isaac Myers in Washington, D.C. According to the website People's World, the new group is a branch of the all-White National Labor Union created three years earlier:

"Unlike the NLU, the CNLU (welcomes) members of all races. Isaac Myers is the CNLU’s founding president; Frederick Douglass (would beome) president in 1872. Myers (says) prophetically the CNLU is a 'safeguard for the colored man…the white and color must come together and work.' "

George Lewis Ruffin is the first African American to become the recipient of a law degree after graduating from Harvard Law School. Ruffin goes on to become the first Black judge in Massachusetts. In 1984, the Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society is founded "to support minority professionals in the Massachusetts criminal justice system," according to the society's website. The society, among other things, sponsors an effort to help Black police officers achieve promotion in the Boston Police Department, as well as the Ruffin Fellows Program, which annually provides a Black student with a full scholarship to the master's degree program in criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

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Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1865–1869." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1865-1869-45423. Lewis, Femi. (2021, February 16). Black History Timeline: 1865–1869. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1865-1869-45423 Lewis, Femi. "Black History Timeline: 1865–1869." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1865-1869-45423 (accessed October 22, 2021).