A report from the Zinn Education Project released early last year found that, nationwide, the Reconstruction era is seldom taught accurately in K-12 schools, and often not enough class time is spent discussing this period. As a result, the Reconstruction era is poorly understood.The post-Civil War Reconstruction era marked a period of massive social, political, economic, and cultural advancements for Black Americans. Between 1865 and 1877, formerly enslaved people gained citizenship rights, fought for land ownership and economic independence, ran for elected office, and established many civic, religious, and educational institutions that are still with us today. With these gains, however, also came fierce backlash to racial progress. White supremacists used violence and intimidation to reverse many of these advancements and ushered in a new era of Jim Crow laws.
Despite the fact that Reconstruction is an important, influential chapter in American history — and that we are still dealing with the fallout of its end — many public and private school curricula do not give adequate attention to this era, spending more time on other periods in American history, such as the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. A report from the Zinn Education Project released early last year found that, nationwide, the Reconstruction era is seldom taught accurately in K-12 schools, and often not enough class time is spent discussing this period. As a result, the Reconstruction era is poorly understood.
According to the Zinn report, state standards and history curricula nationwide fail to “teach a sufficiently complex and comprehensive history of Reconstruction.” Instead, students are often taught an inaccurate and racist depiction of the time. Jesse Hagopian, an educator and organizer with the Zinn Education Project, tells Teen Vogue, “Our report on Reconstruction discovered that the vast majority of states established education standards that ignore the role of white supremacy in ending Reconstruction, and they reproduce racist and false framings of Reconstruction that obscure the contributions of Black people to Reconstruction’s achievements.”
Much of this is due to the fact that many history textbooks are either inadequate, outdated, or rely on misinformation and racist propaganda once peddled by the Dunning School, a group of Columbia University scholars led by historian William A. Dunning in the early 20th century. Most scholars and historians now recognize Reconstruction as a period of Black activism and prosperity, but the Dunning scholars created a school of thought that portrayed the Reconstruction era as a massive failure. According to this racist, revisionist history, Black Americans were “ignorant” and easily manipulated by northern Republicans, who took advantage of corrupt state governments to punish former Confederates and slave owners, who were predominately white southern Democrats.
“The Dunning School peddled in this ‘lost cause’ narrative that made the South seem like a noble cause, as if they were fighting for tradition rather than fighting to maintain human bondage,” Hagopian says. “And that, unfortunately, is a narrative that weaved itself into corporate textbooks all over the country throughout US history.” This false narrative was also upheld by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group focused on ensuring that history textbooks and other reading materials painted the Confederacy — and the forces of white supremacy during Reconstruction — in a respectable and positive light.
In addition, the report found that most state standards do not center the efforts and accomplishments of Black Americans during this time, provide clear and consistent definitions of the era, or emphasize the role the Ku Klux Klan had in actively dismantling racial progress and ending Reconstruction. For instance, Massachusetts is the only state in the US that requires teachers to directly link white supremacy to the birth of the KKK. Meanwhile, Georgia’s Standards of Excellence instructs middle school students to compare the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government agency established to provide food, housing, education, legal assistance, and other necessities to formerly enslaved people, with the KKK and other white supremacists. According to Hagopian, asking students to compare these two entities “creates a dangerous, false moral equivalency.”
In other states, including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, students are asked to discuss the impact that “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” had on Reconstruction. Both words are derogatory terms that were once used by white southern Democrats to describe northerners who moved south and white southerners who supported Republicans and Black Americans.
In addition, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Acts, which helped set the foundation for this new form of multiracial democracy. Many Black Americans ran for office and won, with 16 Black men elected to Congress, 600 serving in state legislatures, and hundreds more elected to various local offices. “It was the first time that African Americans, in any significant numbers, were able to vote, were able to hold office,” Foner tells Teen Vogue. “So this was a remarkable change in the whole nature of American society coming out of slavery.” Black Americans also built their own independent institutions, establishing schools, churches, and grassroots organizations that helped mobilize Black political power.
Some Black Americans even became landowners during Reconstruction, although this was not a result of the “40 acres and a mule” myth. According to Foner, one of the most common misconceptions of the Reconstruction era is that formerly enslaved people were actually given 40 acres of land and a mule as reparations, of a sort, for their enslavement. But this never happened. Union general William T. Sherman did issue an order in 1865 to set aside 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina and Georgia for the settlement of Black families, with 40 acres for each family, and later to loan them Army mules for transportation; but this move was reversed by President Andrew Johnson, who was opposed to Reconstruction and ordered the land to be returned to its former Confederate owners, Foner explains.
Despite many gains and advancements during Reconstruction, the era was marred by rampant political and white supremacist violence. “One of the defining aspects of Reconstruction politics is the sheer amount of violence going on during elections,” New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie tells Teen Vogue. “And a good deal of that violence is the result of these white vigilante groups.”
According to Bouie, the KKK, the White League, and other white supremacist terrorist groups “emerged in response to the beginnings of Black political organizations to, obviously, kind of undermine them and reestablish some version of social relations that existed under slavery.” What started as a proliferation of racist, mocking imagery — which Bouie refers to as “elements of pageantry and even minstrelsy” — quickly escalated to organized violence “against the formerly enslaved and their white allies. In several instances,” Bouie adds, “including Louisiana in 1874 and Mississippi in , White League violence essentially helped defeat a couple of candidates for office.”
Not long after this, the Reconstruction era officially came to an end. Marred by allegations of voter suppression and ballot tampering, the presidential election of 1876 was deeply disputed. Southern Democrats were eager to regain power, but they eventually agreed to concede and accept Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes as the winner in exchange for certain demands. Known as the Compromise of 1877, the informal deal’s official terms remain unknown, but the result was: Federal troops left former Confederate states and Black Americans were stripped of their protections for exercising their political rights in the South, despite Hayes promising in his <a href=”https://www.rbhayes.org/hayes/1876-acceptance-speech/” target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow noopener noreferrer”>acceptance speech that his administration would “cherish” the “truest interests… of the white, and of the colored people both, and equally.” The compromise ushered in an era of Jim Crow laws, which sought to uphold white supremacy and reestablish white rule by segregating public accommodations, criminalizing interracial relationships, and disenfranchising Black Americans through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other forms of voter suppression.
Experts agree that studying this history, however, can help students better understand America’s past and the structural racism that still plagues our nation today, which is especially important given the present political climate. “One of the reasons Reconstruction is so relevant to the current moment or the most recent past is the rise of a racist backlash against progress,” Foner points out. “Reconstruction tells us about the ideals that Americans claim to follow, the ideals of equality and democracy for all; but it also tells us about a tradition, unfortunately, of racism, of violence, and of many people feeling that too many people are voting, that the results of elections are not to be taken seriously.” From the January 6 insurrection to waves of voter suppression laws targeting people of color, these themes are still very much with us.
According to Bouie, the “core ideological struggle” of the Reconstruction era raised many important questions about who America is for and who should be considered an American. For the first time, Americans were asking themselves what kind of government they wanted: a multiracial democracy or a white man’s democracy? “Part of what you see during Reconstruction is Americans grappling with questions about the legacies of slavery, about the role of the state, about the nature of citizenship itself, who it includes and who it excludes, if anyone,” he says. The circumstances have certainly changed, but, Bouie asserts, these are arguments we’re still having.
The Zinn Education Project wants state standards to be updated and teachers to be given the proper tools and resources to teach students a more honest, accurate depiction of the Reconstruction era. In many states, though, lawmakers are forcing schools to take the opposite tack, restricting classroom discussion of race and other aspects of US history. But Hagopian hopes that resources like the Zinn project can help answer some of the era’s most central questions.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from Reconstruction, it’s that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” Foner says. “Rights can be gained and rights can be lost. Many people didn’t quite realize that until we are now seeing it. We are seeing principles that seem to have been achieved forever turned back, wiped away — and that happened during and after Reconstruction.” He continues, “So, studying Reconstruction is very important, both in terms of what was attempted and the bitter resistance that the policies of Reconstruction generated.”
Catherine Caruso is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Philly Inquirer, Medium, and Liberal Currents.