Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow


For whatever reasons, (the causes of the Civil War will not be argued here) the Civil War broke out in 1861. A mere 15 months after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, New Orleans was taken by the Union. The city was a lifeline of the Confederacy for the same reasons it had been important to America for nearly 60 years and the French and Spanish before that. New Orleans was the mouth of the Mississippi River. While not the geographical mouth of the river, that lies over 100 miles downstream, control New Orleans and you control entry and exist to the largest water system in the United States. So the Union did precisely that, control it.

With slavery now abolished, President Lincoln proclaimed slaves in the Confederacy free in the "Emancipation Proclamation," New Orleans' African American population was now free to flourish. Reconstruction would officially run from the end of the Civil War to 1877. During this time Union soldiers occupied the former Confederacy and especially New Orleans to maintain control. Under this strict supervision African Americans were given the vote and other rights held by all citizens. However in the majority of the Delta, a system of sharecropping simply replaced slavery. That system was almost as cruel and inescapable as slavery. To escape this life many African Americans moved to New Orleans and of course the river. Seeking better jobs on the docks of New Orleans, former slaves came to New Orleans full force bringing with them a form of music yet unnamed. It would eventually become the Blues.

However Reconstruction did not last forever. In 1877 the Union troops left and what became known as Jim Crow became the law of the land. Jim Crow was a system by which African Americans could essentially be stripped of all the rights they had just received. However New Orleans was different. New Orleans was a city unlike the majority of the South. It was a cosmopolitan city with many different types of people. The full force of Jim Crow did not reach New Orleans until the 1890's by which point many African Americans had moved from the interior of the Delta to New Orleans.

Now under Jim Crow, life for many New Orleanians was thrown into chaos. The largest group effected were the Creoles, especially Creoles of color. Once free people who associated closely with European ancestry, they were now segregated as second class citizens with former slaves. There was no more opera houses and symphonies for the creole musicians to play for. Likewise the Civil War had been the end of the activities at Congo Square (they had been steadily declining throughout the decades prior to the Civil War). Now forced to live together Creoles of color and former slaves began to listen to each others music. What developed was a fusion of the emotion of the poor Delta blues man, the rhythm of the African tribesmen, the sophistication of the Creole virtuoso, and the pop culture of Ragtime. The recipe for Jazz was complete.


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