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“A Man Knows a Man,” wood engraving, Harper’s Weekly, April 22, 1865

Tensions between the North and South erupted into civil war in 1861. Nearly 200,000 African Americans joined Union military forces before the war’s end. Their military service and sacrifices strengthened support for their full citizenship. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the United States. With the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Congress recognized African Americans as citizens.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

A Man Knows a Man

Congress and the Court Determine African American Citizenship

in 1857 the supreme court decided Dred Scott vs. Sandford (sic), a historic case in which Scott, an enslaved African American, sued for his freedom. The court ruled that enslaved individuals and their descendants were not citizens and couldn’t sue in federal courts. It affirmed slaveholders’ rights in western territories, heightening tensions that sparked the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Congress protected African Americans’ rights through legislation and constitutional amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment nullified the Dred Scott decision by constitutionally guaranteeing African Americans’ citizenship.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

U.S. Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment