When Black Lives Mattered, Teaching About the Reconstruction Era

by January 26, 2018
Black lives matter

Black lives matter as the U.S. president’s racist rhetoric and policies provide an encouraging environment for attacks on black people and other communities of color.

Every day seems to bring new horrors as the U.S. president’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 U.S. 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.

Black lives matter now and then

For example, shortly after hearing in 1865 that she and others on her Florida plantation were no longer enslaved, 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 become a reality, 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 en masse 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. Because, 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.”


black lives matter

The first African American senator and representatives.

When this once seemingly impossible fate became a reality, it democratized and revolutionized U.S. 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 History Alive! The United States’ chapter on Reconstruction, 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 U.S. 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 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.” While the textbooks emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, this role play asks students to imagine themselves as people who were formerly enslaved and to wrestle with a number of issues about what they needed to ensure genuine freedom. Together, students discuss who should own 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, the role play mirrors 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 U.S. history curriculum.

Adam Sanchez (asanchez@zinnedproject.org) teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and the Zinn Education Project organizer and curriculum writer.

This article is part of the Zinn Education Project’s If We Knew Our History series. Reprinted from The Nation. Posted on: Common Dreams.

  • “The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th, 1870” (modified) • Library of Congress
  • Group portrait of African American legislators: Robert C. De Large, Jefferson H. Long, H.R. Revels, Benj. S. Turner, Josiah T. Walls, Joseph H. Rainy [Rainey], and R. Brown Elliot • Library of Congress
Teach Reconstruction Campaign Advisors
  • Shawn Leigh Alexander is an associate professor of African and African American Studies and the director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas. He is the author of An Army of Lions: The Struggle for Civil Rights Before the NAACP and editor of Reconstruction Violence and the Ku Klux Klan Hearings.
  • David Blight is a professor of American history at Yale University and the director of the Gilder Lehman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. Blight is the author of several books including A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom and Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
  • Michael Charney is a retired public school social studies teacher with over 30 years of experience in education, labor organizing, and education policy. He provides strategic guidance to the campaign. Charney wrote curriculum guides to support student organizing including Fulfilling the Promise of America: The Struggle for Voting RightsThe Minimum Wage and the Youth Vote, and the Present as History: A Look into the Origins of the Cleveland School Desegregation Case.
  • Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis and the author of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War. He is also the co-author of the National Parks Service’s Theme Study The Era of Reconstruction 1861-1900.
  • James T. Downs is an associate professor of history and the interim director of the American Studies Program at Connecticut College. He is the author of several books including Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
  • Hilary N. Green is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama and serves as the co-program director of the African American Studies program. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890.
  • Steven Hahn is a professor of history at New York University and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for his book A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.
  • William Loren Katz is the author of numerous books on U.S. history for middle school students, including An Album of Reconstruction.
  • Chenjerai Kumanyika is a researcher, journalist and artist who works as an assistant professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies. He is also the co-executive producer and co-host of Uncivil, Gimlet Media’s new podcast on the Civil War.
  • James Loewen is the emeritus professor of sociology at University of Vermont and the author of several books including Lies My Teacher Told Me, Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, and The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.
  • Kate Masur is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.. She is also the co-author of the National Parks Service’s Theme Study The Era of Reconstruction 1861-1900.
  • Jeremy Nesoff is associate director for staff development at Facing History and Ourselves. He was a 7-12th grade social studies teacher and administrator for 10 years, in a small New York City public school and a small progressive independent school in Vermont. He has been on staff at Facing History for over 10 years and among his roles is leading work connected to the curriculum unit: The Reconstruction Era and The Fragility of Democracy.
  • Paul Ortiz is director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. His is the author of Emancipation Betrayed The Hidden History of Black Organizing & White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (2006) and An African American and Latinx History of the United States (2018).
  • Tyler Parry is an associate professor in African American studies at California State University, Fullerton. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world, and is the author of “Black Radicalism and the ‘Tuition-Free’ University,” an article exploring the profound impact South Carolina’s majority Black Reconstruction era legislature had on public education.
  • David Roediger is the Foundation Professor at the University of Kansas. He is the author of several books on race and class in the United States including Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All.
  • Mark Roudané is a retired early childhood teacher who is dedicating his life to documenting and sharing the history of his great, great grandfather Charles Roudanez who founded the New Orleans Daily Tribune, the first daily Black newspaper, during Reconstruction.
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