Educator Resources

Post Civil War: Freedmen and Civil Rights

Freedmen and Civil Rights


In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans adapted to life as free people with the help of Black church leaders as well as a federal organization known as the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau helped freedmen establish schools, purchase land, and legalize their marriages, however, funding limitations and deeply held racist attitudes forced the Bureau to close in 1872. African Americans were largely abandoned to contend on their own with persistent racial attitudes and discrimination. Many continued to work for their former masters as sharecroppers or tenant farmers in a vicious cycle of debt peonage.

In the twentieth century, the modern civil rights movement put pressure on the courts to address discriminative practices, especially segregation in public facilities and in the nation's public schools.

Refer to Caption Complaint in the case of Morgan v. Hennigan

Morgan v. Hennigan

In 1972, a number of African-American students brought a major discrimination case against Boston public schools. Read about this case in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts: Morgan v. Hennigan.

Documents from the National Archives at Boston

Ella Fitzgerald

En route to a concert from Honolulu to Australia, Ella Fitzgerald was denied the right to board a Pan American flight. Fitzgerald was an international singing sensation. The refusal to allow her on board the plane was seen as discriminatory. Examine the official complaint and judgement in the case Ella Fitzgerald vs Pan American Airways, INC, 1954.

Refer to CaptionComplaint in the case of Fitzgerald v. Pan American Airways
Refer to CaptionJudgment in the case of Fitzgerald v. Pan American World Airways
Refer to CaptionSatisfaction of Judgement in the case of Fitzgerald v. Pan American Airways

Documents from the Northeast Region ~ New York City

Refer to Caption Freedmen s Bureau Field Records

The Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau helped free African-Americans legalize their marriages, attend school, and buy property. Examine records of the field offices of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Documents from the MidAtlantic Region ~ Philadelphia

Petitions of Edmund and Mary S. Kinney

Refer to CaptionKinney Habeas Corpus Petition

Examine court documents from the case of Mary and Edmund Kinney, an interracial married couple arrested in Virginia in 1879:

Petitions of Edmund and Mary S. Kinney (A.K.A. Mary S. Hall) for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

Edmund and Mary Kinney petitioned the court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus because they believed they were unjustly arrested for marrying as an interracial couple in Reconstruction era Virginia. They contented that marriage is a contract and that their freedom of contract, guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment, was violated. A petition is a formal request to the court to take action.

Documents from the MidAtlantic Region ~ Philadelphia

Related Resources

Examine our lesson plans related to modern Civil Rights Cases.

View the text of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Find other Civil Rights cases.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you agree with the petition of Mary and Edmund Kinney that marriage is a type of contract, guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution? Why or why not?

  2. What positive changes did Freedmen experience with the introduction of the Freedmen's Bureau?

  3. How did the lives of African-Americans change after the Freedmen's Bureau ceased to function?

  4. How was life as a Freedman similar to life under slavery?

  5. In the 1954 case involving the airlines, how was Ella Fitzgerald's civil right violated?

  6. Discuss how discrimination cases in the 1950's lead to the major civil rights movement of the 1960's.

For more information about records available in these locations: