When Black Lives Mattered: Why Teach Reconstruction

Republicans are pushing voter suppression legislation at an alarming rate across the United States. And despite the guilty verdict in Minneapolis for the murder of George Floyd, police continue to kill African Americans with impunity. In the face of the Uprising for Black Lives that swept the nation and the world, and the electoral victories in Georgia, white supremacists are doing all they can to hold on to power.

To help students understand the roots of white supremacist attacks and how to organize for racial justice, 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.

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 real, 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 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 too often, the story of this grand experiment in interracial democracy is skipped or rushed through in our classrooms. And when it is taught, the possibilities and achievements of this era are overshadowed by the violent white supremacist backlash. 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 of gradual evolution from slavery to Jim Crow to a post-racial society.

The story of Reconstruction, as it is 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: The actions of those at the top 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 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 the Zinn Education Project has a Teach Reconstruction Campaign. While the textbooks emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, our lessons ask students to confront the questions that shaped the Reconstruction era from the perspective of freedmen and women, in order to mirror the era’s sense of power and historical possibility.

Today — in a moment where activists struggle 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 on the president or Congress. It’s time to make Reconstruction an essential part of the U.S. history curriculum.

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Adam Sanchez is a U.S. history teacher in Philadelphia, Penn. and an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.