Every day seems to bring new horrors, as President Trump’s racist rhetoric and policies have provided an increasingly encouraging environment for attacks on black people and other communities of color. The acquittal of yet another police officer accused of murdering a black man in St. Louis, the raging battle across the country over whether symbols of slavery should be removed from public spaces, and the formation of a “Commission on Election Integrity” to further suppress voting by people of color are just a few of the recent reminders that racism is as American as apple pie.
In moments like these, it’s worth remembering a time in US history when black lives mattered. Reconstruction, the era immediately following the Civil War and emancipation, is full of stories that help us see the possibility of a future defined by racial equity. Though often overlooked in classrooms across the country, Reconstruction was a period where the impossible suddenly became possible.
For example, shortly after hearing in 1865 that she and others on her Florida plantation were no longer enslaved, a woman named Frances told a friend what she thought their future might look like: “This time next year all the white folks will be at work in the fields, and the plantations and the houses, and everything in them will be turned over to us to do with as we please.” While her fantasy didn’t come true, something remarkable did. Without saying anything to their former owner, on New Year’s Day 1866, every freed slave on the plantation left.
The ability of newly freed people to imagine their former owners serving them, or to walk off a plantation in a society that had heavily policed black movement, reveals the possibilities of a period where something that had only a few years prior seemed unthinkable was now a fact of life. As historian David Roediger writes in his book Seizing Freedom, “If anything seemed impossible in the 1850s political universe, it was the immediate, unplanned, and uncompensated emancipation of four million slaves.”
When this once seemingly impossible fate became a reality, it democratized and revolutionized US society. It was a moment in which people who had been enslaved became congressmen. It was a moment where a black-majority legislature in South Carolina could tax the rich to pay for public schools. It was a moment that spawned the first experiments in black self-determination in the Georgia Sea Islands, where 400 freedmen and -women divided up land, planted crops, started schools, and created a democratic system with their own constitution, congress, supreme court, and armed militia. It was a moment where millions of blacks and poor whites organized together across the South in the Union Leagues, engaging in strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and educational campaigns. And it was a moment where other social movements—in particular, the labor movement and the feminist movement—drew strength from the inspiring actions of African Americans to secure and define their own freedom. In sum, the Reconstruction era was a moment when black lives, black actions, and black ideas mattered.
Yet the possibilities and achievements of this era are too often overshadowed by the violent white supremacist backlash. Too often the story of this grand experiment in interracial democracy is skipped or rushed through in classrooms across the country. This reflects the textbook treatment of the era. For example, in the chapter on Reconstruction in History Alive! The United States, the only time the textbook explicitly discusses the monumental accomplishments of black Americans is in one paragraph titled “African Americans in Office.” Yet there are two paragraphs devoted to “White Terrorism” and five pages—nearly half the entire chapter—discussing Reconstruction’s demise. Although it is crucial to teach the counter-revolution that led to the establishment of Jim Crow, it’s also important that teachers don’t make the backlash the only story—once again putting whites at the center of US history. To ignore or minimize the successes of Reconstruction reinforces the narrative of slow American racial progress—a historical myth in which our country gradually evolved from slavery to Jim Crow to a post-racial society. This is a fable that ignores the actions of millions of people who fought to end systems of white supremacy and prevent new ones from taking hold.
The story of Reconstruction, told in nearly every major American history textbook, highlights the ideas and actions of those at the top—the debates between the president and Congress. For example, the popular textbook The American Journey spends about 15 of the 21 pages it devotes to Reconstruction explaining the actions of Congress and the president. The book dedicates most of the remaining pages to white resistance to Reconstruction in the South. The message communicated through textbooks like The American Journey is clear: It’s the actions of those at the top that matter most. Yet, as Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote:
An education that focuses on elites, ignores an important part of the historical record…. As a result of omitting, or downplaying, the importance of social movements of the people in our history…a fundamental principle of democracy is undermined: the principle that it is the citizenry, rather than the government, that is the ultimate source of power and the locomotive that pulls the train of government in the direction of equality and justice.
The Reconstruction era is precisely one where the government was pulled “in the direction of equality and justice” by the actions of citizens—many of whom had only recently won that designation. This is why last January the Zinn Education Project published our Reconstruction-era lesson “Reconstructing the South.” Together, students discuss who should have owned the plantation land—and what that land would be used for; the fate of Confederate leaders; voting rights; self-defense; and conditions placed on the former Confederate states prior to being allowed to return to the Union. By having students confront the questions that shaped the Reconstruction era from the perspective of freedmen and -women, they achieve some understanding of the sense of power and historical possibility of the era.
Today—in a moment where activists are struggling to make black lives matter—every student should probe the relevance of Reconstruction. If anything, the Reconstruction period teaches us that when it comes to justice and equality, what may seem impossible is indeed possible—but depends on us, not simply the president or Congress. That’s why, as the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment nears, the Zinn Education Project has launched our “Teach Reconstruction” campaign. Over the course of this school year we plan to provide lessons, resources, and workshops for teachers seeking to bring to life in their classrooms this crucial historical turning point. It’s time to make Reconstruction an essential part of the US history curriculum.