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Guest Editor's Introduction

When I teach the second half of my American history survey course, which covers topics from 1865 to the present, I begin by asking students to imagine themselves sitting in the classroom back in the late 1930s, when the university where I teach was in its first decade of existence and had only one building. To set the stage, I tell them that instead of the rich diversity they see around them today, their classmates would have been white and in front of the classroom would have been a white, bow tie–wearing historian. The students always laugh at that because I'm a white, bow tie–wearing history professor. That's the last laugh for a while because I then tell them how they would have learned about Reconstruction, that period just after the Civil War in American history. Their 1930s professor probably would have cribbed his lecture notes (and it would have been a "him") from the "eminent" Columbia University professor William Dunning, whose racist interpretation of Reconstruction was far and away the dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The students would have heard from their professor that Reconstruction failed because freed slaves were not ready for freedom and the responsibilities that came with it. They would have heard that African Americans elected to political office were inherently corrupt (assumedly much more so than white politicians) and incapable of making intelligent decisions. They would have heard that white southern Democrats saved the South and the nation by regaining complete control of the political machinery and righting the social order in the late 1870s. It is a version of history straight out of The Birth of a Nation.

Their professor would have miseducated these students and reinforced racist attitudes toward African Americans. They would not have been introduced to a new interpretation of Reconstruction that came out in 1935 because it had been largely ignored by the history profession at the time. Why, you ask? Because it was an interpretation put forth by an African American, the Harvard-educated historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. His Black Reconstruction challenged the argument that freed slaves were not ready for freedom and deserved to have [End Page 116] their rights taken away from them. Slaves were not liberated in his narrative of Reconstruction; they liberated themselves. And liberation, he asserted, came in the form of a general strike. "This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. … They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations" (Du Bois 67). Du Bois went on to explore how newly freed slaves were not given the tools they needed to put themselves on a solid economic footing. They were caught in the middle between two vying exploitive labor systems—defined by Du Bois in terms of a northern industrial dictatorship or a southern agricultural oligarchy. He described how whites used violence and the threat of violence to disenfranchise African Americans and keep them at the bottom of the social ladder. Moreover, whites used racism to keep poor whites and poor blacks from coming together to fight a common oppressor. He told the story from the African American perspective and in so doing provided a powerful corrective to Dunning's interpretation.

I then take my students back to the 2010s and underscore just how wrong Dunning was in his characterization of African Americans by telling them the story of Robert Smalls, whose courage and integrity shows the extent of Dunning's mischaracterization of African American politicians. Smalls was a slave from South Carolina who in 1862 stole a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union. He served in the Union during the Civil War, becoming a captain in 1865. Following the Civil War, he returned to South Carolina, where he ran for and won election as a state legislator. He then went on to serve five terms in the House of Representatives. In an 1877 speech to Congress, he talked about the corrupt and violent means white southern Democrats used...