A new chapter in American history opened as the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in January of 1865, was implemented. It abolished slavery in the United States, and now, with the end of the war, four million African Americans were free. Thousands of former slaves travelled throughout the south, visiting or searching for loved ones from whom they had become separated. Harriet Jacobs was one who returned to her old home. Former slaveholders faced the bewildering fact of emancipation with everything from concern to rage to despair.
Men and women — black and white and in the North and South — now began the work of rebuilding the shattered union and of creating a new social order. This period would be called Reconstruction. It would hold many promises and many tragic disappointments. It was the beginning of a long, painful struggle, far longer and more difficult than anyone could realize. It was the beginning of a struggle that is not yet finished.
As part of Reconstruction, two new amendments were added to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in June 1865, granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in February of 1869, guaranteed that no American would be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. For many African Americans, however, this right would be short-lived. Following Reconstruction, they would be denied their legal right to vote in many states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But all of this was yet to come. The Americans of 1865 were standing at the point between one era and another. What they knew was that slavery was dead. With that 250 year legacy behind them, they faced the future.
(PBS on John Brown)