This graphic is making the rounds this month depicting Black history in the United States. Benjamin Jancewicz, a White artist, created the timeline and has already had much drubbing as well as thousands of RTs. The racist critics object to his inclusion of the colonial period before the American Revolution as a play at making the slavery period look longer. The anti-racists have objected to his coloring the contemporary end green as though the struggle is over. There are, as the creator said on Twitter, dozens of things that could be added, and I’ve got one too.
My addition isn’t for the beginning or the end, but in the middle of U.S. history, right after the Civil War, a period known as Reconstruction. I don’t blame Jancewicz for leaving it out of his timeline. Most of the racial justice activists and scholars I hear do the same, including myself. None of us talk enough about Reconstruction, wrestle with its meaning and mine that knowledge for application to today’s politics. While I certainly agree that the overwhelming lesson of American history is an unrelenting story of exploiting and repressing Black communities, we give up a lot by ignoring examples that ran against this grain, including clarity about what comes before and after big social changes.
Reconstruction refers to the time of rebuilding national unity, rebuilding the South and rebuilding Black communities after the Civil War. Until the 1960s, Reconstruction was generally panned by White historians as a total failure, proof of Northern corruption and “carpetbagging,” and also proof that Black people couldn’t handle their own affairs after slavery ended. W.E.B Du Bois published his massive “Black Reconstruction in America” to rebut this narrative in 1934, but the book (considered a classic now) was almost completely ignored by the academy. Today, historians rejecting the racism of their own profession have firmly won the debate, establishing Reconstruction as one of the most important, if also brief and incomplete, turning points in American history.
When the Civil War ended, no one in the Federal government had a clear plan for newly freed Black workers and families. Activists and politicians debated various models. In the long run, this vagueness enabled Jim Crow segregation and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, but the chaos of the time also enabled a great deal of experimentation in Black self-determination, much of which had long-lasting effects. As I’ve taken a deep dive into Reconstruction books, videos and lectures, I’ve learned many things that were never mentioned in my elementary-school education.
The political positioning of the Democratic and Republican parties was the exact opposite of today’s. Lincoln was a Republican, as were the most dedicated abolitionists. After the war, the Radical Republicans supported Black elites in pushing for full suffrage for Blacks, rather than some second-class status. These radicals were accused of subverting the peace process, and they were eventually pushed out of power. But before that happened, they took over many Southern state houses and Congress.
They passed three critical Constitutional Amendments. The 13th abolished slavery. The 14th established birthright citizenship (to which every child of an immigrant since 1866 owes their citizenship, and which the anti-immigrant right would love to reverse today). The 15th prohibited discrimination in voting because of race, color or creed. There was other legislation as well. President Andrew Johnson vetoed a law to establish the Freedmens Bureau to help Black communities resettle, and the Civil Rights Act establishing equal protection. Congress passed new versions, which Johnson vetoed again, and Congress overrode him. These were the first major pieces of legislation to pass by a veto override.
Black Americans began exercising political muscles throughout the South immediately. By the 1870s, the first 16 Black Congressmen were elected. Over 1000 Black people held political office from the local to the national level, including 600 state legislators.
Black communities built institutions, which created a new culture and anchored Black activism. They built schools, effectively beginning public education in the South. Hundreds of thousands of Black people went to school after the Civil War, from the tiniest child to the eldest elder. Du Bois considers the enormous cultural change that came from Black and White people teaching and learning together: “But in a thousand schools of the South after the war were brought together the most eager of the emancipated blacks and that part of the North which believed in democracy; and this social contact of human beings became a matter of course….on the whole, the result was one of the most astonishing successes in new and sudden human contact.”
During Reconstruction, most of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities were founded. They graduated the leaders, thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Booker T. Washington went to Hampton, founded 1868; Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Morehouse, founded 1867; Thurgood Marshall and Toni Morrison to Howard, founded also in 1867; Alice Walker came out of Spelman, founded 1881.
These universities also played a significant role during the Civil Rights Movement. SNCC was founded at Shaw; the Greensboro Four were students at North Carolina A&T State University (founded 1891). James Lawson’s first trainings for civil disobeyers recruited students from Fisk University, founded in 1865, and others.
The most fascinating stories of Black Reconstruction are about experiments in land ownership for Black people. Names like Davis Bend and Port Royal should be common knowledge as they set a standard for Black self-determination and cooperative living. Some of these started even before the War ended. In 1862, The Federal Government started the Port Royal Experiment, sending a representative to the South Carolina Sea Islands to start hospitals and schools as well as to help Blacks buy and run plantations. The next year, Lincoln created policies that made 16,000 acres of plantation land available for purchase by Blacks. Local people immediately bought 2000 acres and got permission from the Union Army to found the town of Mitchelville, the first of many all-Black communities.
Reconstruction ultimately failed Black liberation because the Federal Government refused to follow through after 1880. They didn’t fully fund the Freedmens’ Bureau and protect voting rights, and they allowed segregation and vigilantism as well as state violence against Black folks for the next century without doing anything. The Klan formed in 1867, as much in reaction to suffrage as emancipation. Those early Black Congressmen were pushed out, and there would be no more from Southern states until late in the 20th century. Much of the land Black people had gained was taken back by violence or corruption.
But there were 11-20 years in there (depending on who you ask) during which the barriers to Black self-determination were at their lowest point in the nation’s existence up to that point. In that time, until they were newly repressed through Jim Crow and lynching, Black Southerners learned, governed and pursued freedom.
The Reconstruction history holds important lessons for our contemporary struggle. First, we need to celebrate every act of resistance. A picture of American history that has only unrelenting oppression until some magical point after the Civil Rights Movement is simply inaccurate, and hides the importance of ongoing rebellion. Without those stories of agency, even the version of U.S. history most sympathetic to racial justice is all Black victims and White saviors.
Lesson two: no victory is complete, but victories still matter. There are negotiations and retrenchments, and the people who wish to oppress us don’t disappear. They rebuild. And yet, the starting point of our discussion about Black Americans will never again be legalized enslavement. (I do realize that at any moment, the Trump Administration could prove me wrong on this one.) The system had to come up with new ways to control and repress Black people. I submit that forcing a system to come up with a new way because the old way has been made untenable is a massive victory, if always incomplete.
The third big lesson, for me, is that the story of Reconstruction allows Black people to just be - not to be pathologized or vilified or even revered, but to just be as other human beings are allowed to be. We need many more such stories. The most striking thing I read during this study were these lines in Du Bois’ note to the reader in Black Reconstruction:
"If the reader believes that the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being, who under given environment develops like other human begins, then he will read this story and judge it by the facts adduced. If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation ... then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down...without further ado, I am assuming the truth of the first."
There's so much more to this epic story. The building of churches as a place of freedom from White control; the efforts of families to reunite; the debate about whether land or suffrage was more important for liberation. I couldn't possibly do it justice in one blog post.
With the help of Facebook friends, I’ve gathered a partial list of resources on Reconstruction. Please dig in, share, and add your favorites in the comments.
- W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 – a classic
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (there’s also an abridged version)
- Lawrence Goldstone, Inherently Unequal: the Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903
- Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery
- Slate Academy Series on Reconstruction
- Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: chapter on Black women during Reconstruction (also a classic on the Black family during slavery)
- Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen
- Zinn Education Project, Reconstruction archives – great for teachers