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Reconstruction and the Clinton Riot, Part I

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

When General Ulysses Grant invaded central Mississippi in May 1863, slaves in Hinds County were emancipated. The Union army classified them first as “contraband.” After the Congress authorized the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865 to protect former slaves from exploitation by whites, blacks became freedmen.
The story of Reconstruction in Mississippi begins with freedmen becoming citizens and, through their voting power, taking control of state and county governments. The story continues as whites, using their economic power and terrorism, regained control of state and county governments. Clinton was a battle ground in that struggle.
Reconstruction began after the South’s devastating loss in the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson appointed provisional governors in the defeated states. The governors were to call for elections for state conventions to amend their existing constitutions by renouncing slavery and the right of secession. Former Confederate leaders and wealthy land owners were excluded from voting and holding office. Others had to take a loyalty oath to the United States.

President Johnson appointed William Sharkey, a Union Whig, as provisional governor for Mississippi. After the convention election was held in August 1865, delegates met the next month and adopted the required measures on slavery and secession and set state elections for October. President Johnson hoped Mississippi would extend the franchise to freedmen.
The October elections gave Conservative Democrats and former Whigs control of state and county governments. The new legislature met and adopted a number of new laws (the Black Code) to solidify white control of government. One bill, “A Law to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen,” was designed to restrict the freedom and movement of freedmen. Freedmen had to have a license to have a firearm. They could own land but could not rent or lease land.
The most controversial legislation was the “vagrancy law,” which identified anyone unemployed as a vagrant and subject to arrest. There was also an apprentice law that required any freedman under the age of eighteen to be placed under dependable whites “for training.” The rationale for the Black Code was to guard the freedmen and the State from any evils that might arise from the freedmen’s sudden emancipation. The Freedmen’s Bureau later neutralized the Black Code.
In December 1865, the Republicancontrolled U.S. Congress reconvened and began dismantling the president’s reconstruction program. Congress passed a civil rights bill giving freedmen the same civil rights that whites enjoyed, including the right to vote. Then Congress overrode several presidential vetoes and reorganized the southern states into military districts. General Edward Ord assumed command of the Fourth District that included Arkansas and Mississippi.

Charles Caldwell

Charles Caldwell

General Ord ordered a voter registration that included black and white males who had not served in public office during the war.  For the first time in state history, people now had to register to vote.  Blacks numbered about 80,000 among the 137,000 who registered state-wide. Clinton’s precinct, which included the town and surrounding rural area, had 113 whites and 442 blacks registered. Ord scheduled elections for a constitutional convention in October 1867.
The election was historic: newly enfranchised black voters participated for the first time in Mississippi’s history. The Republican Party won a large majority of the one hundred delegates to the convention. Seventeen were blacks, including Charles Caldwell of Hinds County.
Charles Caldwell was born a slave in Hinds County. He was a blacksmith by training and was literate, something rare in that day because it was prohibited by state law. Caldwell became a leader among free blacks in the county, and General Ord appointed him to the board of police in Hinds County in 1866.
The convention wrote a new constitution for Mississippi that featured a dual public school system supported by state land revenue and a poll tax. Black leaders favored the dual system, because they wanted to control their own schools. The most controversial provision in the constitution was the franchise clause, which excluded from voting or holding public office anyone who supported secession or the rebellion.

Whites threatened economic reprisals to intimidate black voters, and the new constitution was defeated by a vote of 63,861 opposed to 50,040 in favor. Mississippi did what no other southern state had done – it rejected a constitution written while under military authority. Military government continued.
On Christmas Day of 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a presidential proclamation giving amnesty to all who had participated in the Rebellion. This neutralized the franchise clause in the 1868 constitution. Republicans agreed to revise the proposed constitution by nullifying the franchise clause. The newly-elected president Ulysses Grant accepted the change. Elections were held in November 1869, and the constitution was approved by an overwhelming majority of Mississippians. Military government came to a close.
State elections in 1870 resulted in a Republican victory. Republicans controlled all state-wide elected offices and nearly all county governments. Republicans won control of Hinds County, and Charles Caldwell of Clinton was one of five blacks elected to the state senate. Caldwell became the leading black Republican in Hinds County. By this time, he had moved to Clinton to a home one block from the Mississippi College campus.

Editor’s note: The City of Clinton will dedicate two historical markers on September 4, 2015: one for the Clinton Riot, and the other for Charles Caldwell, victim of an assassination in December 1875. This is the first in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell, the City Historian, on the Clinton Riot of September 1875, an event that started the end of Reconstruction in Mississippi and the rest of the South.

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