What Social Changes Followed the End of Slavery?

Felicia Dye

After the end of slavery in the U.S., blacks had to begin to fight for equal rights. They also had to deal with problems such as illiteracy, poverty, and lack of land ownership, all of which had adverse effects on their lives. Many white Americans did not want blacks to be equal in society, developing measures, which were often violent, that aimed to keep them in an inferior position. Whites separated themselves from blacks in almost every way possible. Although they struggled to remain the superior race, whites suffered social changes prompted by the loss of free labor.

Even after the end of slavery, black Americans faced a long uphill climb toward equality.
Even after the end of slavery, black Americans faced a long uphill climb toward equality.

The end of slavery in the United States began a long battle for the equal rights of blacks that many argue has continued into the 21st century. Although whites could no longer own colored human beings, they were very resistant to the idea of treating them equally, especially in the South. Racist hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan went to extreme measures to make black people feel unwelcome as members of society. Freed slaves were subject to lynchings and beatings, and whites often refused to recognize blacks' rights.

African slaves were exchanged in the Americas for the raw materials that were used to make the European goods that were sold in Africa.
African slaves were exchanged in the Americas for the raw materials that were used to make the European goods that were sold in Africa.

White Americans concocted ways to disenfranchise blacks after the end of slavery. As former slaves were mostly illiterate and unskilled, their employment options were limited. Many of them, especially those in the South, were concentrated in agriculture. Working under unjust terms meant that they generally remained poor, uneducated, and landless. This provided white Americans with an ideal opportunity to develop and exploit schemes such as the poll tax and literacy tests that prevented a lot of blacks from voting.

Segregation is one of the infamous social effects that arose after the end of slavery. In an effort to degrade blacks further and to continue to promote ideas of the superiority of the white race, the two groups were separated in almost every aspect of life. There were laws that required whites and blacks to use different water fountains and to enter buildings through separate entrances. This type of social division even extended to children, requiring that textbooks for white and black children be stored separately.

Although blacks struggled the most, white Americans also faced hardship after the end of slavery. The loss of free sources of labor changed the lives of many white plantation owners. They could not afford to pay laborers to do all of the work that they once forced their slaves to do. This meant that men and women who once considered themselves elite were now required to do much more work for themselves. The effects of this change were shifts in social status and attitudes toward marital relationships and the role of the sexes.

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Discussion Comments


The practice of slavery was not universally accepted in the South. There were native Southerners who rejoiced when slavery ended, but they were not in a social position to change the hearts and minds of the white elite. It would take another hundred years before the majority of white Southerners accepted the majority of black Southerners as true equals.

The original Ku Klux Klan had other agendas besides the harassment of freed blacks living in the South. They also targeted white Southern men who were not protecting their families or helping with the rebuilding process. Later incarnations of the KKK, which had little connection to the original organization, were the ones who made the organized torture and murder of blacks a priority.

Some whites in the South assumed, quite naturally one might argue, that most blacks preferred to remain segregated from white society. The idea of white and black children attending the same schools or restaurants serving black and white customers at the same tables was not as troubling as having federal laws dictating the time table and the methodology of such changes.


When slavery ended, many of the freed slaves had nowhere else to go except the areas around their former masters' plantations in the Deep South. For many years, there was a form of voluntary segregation in those small towns and cities. Blacks simply felt more secure around other blacks, and whites didn't have to associate with anyone other than fellow whites. This extended to churches, stores, restaurants, and workplaces. This was an organic form of "separate but (theoretically) equal".

The real enemy of many prejudiced whites was not the freed black population, but the federal government which was forcing changes on traditional Southern culture. There were plenty of poor whites who were no different than poor blacks, but the federal government was offering more tangible financial support to disenfranchised blacks. This also added to the hostility. The white Southerners were economically decimated by the Civil War, but the federal government treated them like a defeated enemy.

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