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.