By Mimi Eisen, Historian
For the past few years, there have been rumblings of a third Reconstruction – the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s is now widely considered the second. And yet, the namesake of these eras is one of the least understood and most under-discussed periods of American history, even as we move through its 150th anniversary. Most history texts will label Reconstruction as the period from 1865 to 1877, bookended by the close of the Civil War and the official divestment of federal support in the South twelve years later. But we can also think of it as America’s first attempt to reckon with its own traditions of white supremacy, define the constitutional tenets of citizenship, and reimagine its infrastructure in radical ways – ways that, for the very first time, would reflect the fact that Black lives matter. In that sense, the project of Reconstruction is still ongoing.
Its history is not easy to consume. As a twelve-year period and a larger process, Reconstruction is at times contested, uncomfortable, and pushed to the sidelines of most curricula and conversations about American history. This was an era punctuated by unparalleled civil rights protests and progress, enforced by radical legislation and on-the-ground action that seemed unfathomable until it wasn’t. It was also the era that saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the beginnings of Jim Crow—of harrowing violent and legal forces shifting together to obstruct racial justice and secure white supremacy’s reach for decades to come. Deeming Reconstruction a failure undercuts the radical possibilities it held and the efforts of those who pushed uncertain progress to realize them. But deeming it a success discredits the devastating consequences of white supremacy’s endurance through post-abolition America and every America since. All at once, Reconstruction’s legacy is complicated, unfinished, and all-too-relevant to the moment we inhabit today.
The experiences of those who lived through Reconstruction varied considerably from person-to-person and state-by-state; it would be impossible to capture them all here. And many experiences, especially of African Americans, were never written down, never preserved, or were largely drowned out in the master narrative of American history. But some Black voices are preserved in the historical record, and they each deserve particular care and attention. I’ve quoted several below. Their words provide an entry point into recognizing the resilient trauma of white supremacy and the radical promise of eradicating it.
The end of the Civil War is often lauded as a great American triumph, but the legal abolition of slavery and the sacrifices African Americans made on behalf of the Union did not automatically beget racial equality—far from it. In this June 5, 1865 address to the people of the United States, a coalition of Black citizens in Norfolk, Virginia described their new status as “free” people still precluded from the rights and privileges enjoyed by white men, and called for justice:
[C]ases have occurred, not far from Richmond itself, in which an attempt to leave the plantation has been punished by shooting to death; and finally, there are numbers of cases, known to ourselves, in the immediate vicinity of this city, in which a faithful performance, by colored men, of the duties or labor contracted for, has been met by a contemptuous and violent refusal of the stipulated compensation. These are facts, and yet the men doing these things are, in many cases, loud in their professions of attachment to the restored Union, while committing these outrages on the most faithful friends that Union can ever have […]You are further anxious that your government should be an example to the world of true Republican institutions; but how can you avoid the charge of inconsistency if you leave one eighth of the population of the whole country without any political rights…
Source: Library of Congress
For the entirety of the nineteenth century, Black women were afforded next-to-no political rights; for most of it, very few were even taught to read and write. Those who did learn and document their thoughts still often went disregarded in the historical record, their perspectives unpreserved. Consider those featured here, like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, exceptions that prove the rule.
Harper attended the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth and went on to become a prolific writer and lifelong civil rights activist. On May 1, 1866, one year into Reconstruction, she addressed the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City — including white suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. Harper called for the addition of Black women into their equal-rights equation in her speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together”:
We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members.
[…] I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by preju[d]ice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party. You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.
As part of this larger effort toward equity, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to aid freed Black and poor white populations in the decimated former Confederacy. The Freedmen’s Bureau made significant strides in education, founding over 1,000 schools and teacher-training institutions. It generated many states’ first public school systems. At the same time, the program and the Black people it supported contended with Black Codes, a series of restrictive laws passed by Southern legislatures in order to replicate the conditions of slavery. Harriet Jacobs, autobiographer of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, moved with her daughter Louisa to establish a freedmen’s school in Savannah, Georgia. Louisa Jacobs wrote of progress and peril in this May 26, 1866 letter:
I average ninety in the morning school, and still continue my afternoon school for adults.
I have much to encourage me in my labors, I have children who could not spell when I organized the school in November, now reading well and studying Arithmitic [sic] and Geography. This does not show inferiority of race.
[…] The chains have fallen off from them; but justice has not yet found an echo in the hearts of their old oppressors. It will be a long time before things can be righted for the colored man South. Arrests are frequently made, and fines and punishments inflicted without any actual proof of guilt.
Source: Documenting the American South
The early years of Reconstruction also saw the founding of America’s first terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, in Pulaski, Tennessee. The Klan worked to dismantle civil rights initiatives and reinstate total white supremacy by inflicting violence on Black people. And many thousands of technically nonviolent white Americans were complicit: they believed in the project of white supremacy and supported the Klan’s aims to restore it. Most milestones crossed in the movement for racial justice, unimaginable just five years prior, further enflamed the Klan’s cause—especially the 1868 passage of the 14th Amendment, which legally granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all Americans.
By the end of the decade, the Klan had extended into every Southern state and commonly enacted terror to intimidate freedmen out of exercising their newly established right to vote, hold office, and otherwise participate in the body politic. Its members also razed Black churches and schools, which had become centers and symbols of Black community, progress, and possibility. On February 7, 1869, Richard Reese—then President of the Grant Club of Schley County, Georgia—recounted this reign of terror firsthand:
When the Ku-Klux commenced riding about the country I was at Macon attending the colored convention. When I got home some white men, Democrats, who were friends of mine, told me that the Ku-Klux would certainly kill me if I staid [sic] at home at nights. I took my blanket and hid in the woods. I have never had a gun or pistol in my life. I lay in the woods every night until after election.
[…] Last spring we built a school-house, and hired a white lady to teach our school for several months. We held meetings and schools every Sunday. Friday night, February 5, 1869, our school-house was burned up. […] We want the Government or somebody to help us build. We want some law to protect us. We know that we could burn their churches and schools, but it is against the law to burn houses, and we don’t want to break the law or harm anybody. We want the law to protect us, and all we want is to live under the law.
Source: Project Gutenberg
As the 1870s progressed, white supremacist backlash increasingly stymied the progressive goals of Reconstruction. Immense pressure from white Southerners convinced Congress to terminate the Freedmen’s Bureau, terrorism pervaded most political and physical spaces carved out for Black autonomy, and economic downturns weakened the Republican Party’s stature and initiatives. Many thousands of Americans who’d considered themselves abolitionists and then allies of freed-people rearranged their priorities to suit their financial interests. Most retellings of Reconstruction focus on its Southern contest, failing to also underscore the resiliency of white supremacy in the North.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to protect Black Americans across the nation from civil rights violations: it prohibited racial discrimination in public spaces decades before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) would legalize segregation. But many Americans did not comply. On January 6, 1876, Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania wrote in the The Christian Recorder of Henry Jones, a wealthy Black businessman who had recently legally purchased burial plots in Mount Moriah Cemetery for his family. Upon Jones’ death in 1876, white segregationist lot owners and cemetery managers stood at the cemetery gates and stopped his funeral procession and burial. Tanner noted that achievements in wealth, education, and legal status did not immunize African Americans from white supremacy:
It is not, then, the best thing for the nation to insist that an eighth of all its people shall be, practically, “a nation within a nation.” Not, indeed, if liberty and republicanism are to be preserved.
We are not unaware of the fact that some tell us this will not be so when the colored man gets education and money. But how are colored men now treated, who have both education and money? Scarcely a whit better than those of the same class who have neither. […] The body of Henry Jones, respected and well-to-do as he was, was driven from the gates of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia – not, indeed, by a rabble, with stones in hand, but by managers, who claim to be gentlemen and Christians.
Source: Accessible Archives
Jones’ family sued the cemetery in Mount Moriah Cemetery Association v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1876), and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed his right to burial. This was a very progressive decision, especially considering the decades of legally enforced segregation and other civil rights rollbacks to come. 1877 saw a major reversal in federal priorities and the collapse of Reconstruction, marked by the end of federal involvement in protecting the rights and property of African Americans for nearly a century. And, as we have seen time and again, those protections remain uncertain today. The great promise and possibilities of Reconstruction have yet to be realized. So has its full educational potential. But the injustices of today have a history—and when something has a history, its trajectory into the future can be changed.
Above all, Reconstruction tells us that progress is not a straight line, and that the mechanisms of white supremacy and resistance to it are both longstanding and homegrown. When those lessons go unlearned or unvalued, we should always ask why. Historian and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois was born into Reconstruction and, as in many contexts, deserves the last word. The excerpt below is from “The Propaganda of History,” a chapter in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America:
“War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led.
[…] But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
Source: Facing History and Ourselves
A commitment to honoring Black history and combating racism involves consistent work on individual and systemic levels. Below, see several starting points for further engagement with Reconstruction and its afterlife today:
Dissent Magazine – The Urgency of a Third Reconstruction; Facing History and Ourselves – The Reconstruction Era Video Series; JSTOR Daily – Revisiting Reconstruction; Library of Congress – Reconstruction and its Aftermath; Zinn Education Project – Teach Reconstruction Campaign
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