On December 18, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted as part of the United States Constitution. The amendment officially abolished slavery, and immediately freed more than 100,000 enslaved people, from Kentucky to Delaware. The language used in the Thirteenth Amendment was taken from the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.

Yet the Thirteenth Amendment maintains an important exception for keeping people in "involuntary srevitude" as "punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Some scholars say this exception ended slavery in one form only to allow it to continue in anohter. These laws are sometimes credited with laying the groundwork for the U.S. system of mass incarceration, which disproportionately imprisons Black people.

Two years earlier, at the height of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all Blacks held captive in the states who'd rebelled against the United States (as members of the Confederacy) were free. This did not have a sweeping practical impact, however, as the Confederacy considered itself a separate nation and did not follow U.S. laws, and the proclamation did not free enslaved populations in the “border states” that sided with the United States.

Within five years, Congress passed the 14th and 15th Amendments. These amendments, among the most contested in courts today, established citizenship, equal protection, and voting rights for all male Americans, regardless of race. However, the same suffrage and protections would not be afforded to women of all races until over 50 years later, when Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919.


to wipe out or get rid of.


to formally raise and care for a child of other biological parents.


change made to a law or set of laws.


behavior of a person in terms of their community.

civil war

conflict between groups in the same country or nation.


Confederate States of America, states which broke from the United States to form a new government during the Civil War.


system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.


to distribute, give away, or sell.


political unit made of people who share a common territory.


process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.

voting rights

issues surrounding the legal right and ability to campaign and cast a vote in political elections.

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