Reconstruction to 1900

Obtaining freedom was the most dramatic yet challenging moment of most slaves’ lives. Finding employment, establishing their own institutions, and overcoming the hostility of much of the white population made their situation an especially difficult one in the post-war period known as Reconstruction. While some former slaves found employment in a variety of trades, the great majority of freedmen continued to labor on the land, working for a percentage of the crops they tended, often on the land of their former owners. Still, freedom opened up previously unimagined opportunities for former slaves in civic and social life. For the first time in this area’s history, portions of the black community were able to participate in elections, attend schools and establish their own churches.

The reluctance of many whites to accept freedmen as fellow citizens proved to be one of the foremost obstacles to adjusting to their new role in society. Accustomed to viewing African Americans only as slaves, leading citizens in many Southern cities expected freedmen to be a burden on their communities and discouraged them from taking up residence. This hostility sometimes led to violence. On March 30, 1868, members of the Ku Klux Klan killed white political organizer George Ashburn in the 13th Street boarding house he shared with several black citizens. Nine local men were tried for the murder by federal officials, but the abrupt end of military Reconstruction in Georgia interrupted the trial before the case was decided. The event brought national attention to political and racial tension in the South at the time.

As area businesses rebuilt and expanded after the war, Columbus also grew as suburbs like Wynnton and Rose Hill became connected to the city by electrified streetcars. Columbus residents enjoyed new technology, civic and charitable organizations, and recreational areas as they moved into the 20th century.

  • Cane
    ca. 1868
    Museum purchase made possible by a generous donation from Mr. and Mrs. Donald F. Broda, Jr. and a Friend of the Museum 2002.37 .a-.b

    The “Columbus Prisoners” in the George Ashburn murder case presented this cane to Kentucky Congressman James B. Beck in appreciation for his support.

  • Freedmen's contract
    Gift of Benjamin Hurt Hardaway III 2009.13.51

    Freedmen’s contracts set out the conditions of African Americans’ employment on land owned by whites, often with harsh restrictions on wages, traveling, and leaving a job.

  • St. Elmo
    Gift of Bill and Jackie Johnston 2006.30.15

    Columbus native Augusta Jane Evans wrote this novel, one of the most popular of the 19th century, while living in her aunt’s home in present-day Midtown.

  • Confederate Veterans of Georgia reunion ribbon
    Museum purchase made possible by the Evelyn S. and H. Wayne Patterson Fund 2006.26

    For decades Civil War veterans gathered often for reunions, including in Columbus, which claimed to be the site of the first Memorial Day on April 26, 1866.

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