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  • The After Slavery Website:A New Online Resource for Teaching U.S. Slave Emancipation
  • Brian Kelly (bio) and John W. White (bio)

There cannot be many serious students of the American past unimpressed by the scale of the interpretive shift in the historiography of slave emancipation over the past generation. "No part of the American experience," Eric Foner asserted on the very first page of the preface to his Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution in 1988, has seen such "a broadly accepted point of view so completely overturned as [the period of] Reconstruction."1 Unqualified assertions like this frequently come back to haunt scholars, but more than twenty years later Foner's assessment seems measured, judicious, and not the least bit hyperbolic.

While this revolution in historiography has gradually come to be reflected in the content of traditional teaching materials, the shortage of quality online resources aimed at conveying the significance of the struggles accompanying slave emancipation is striking. One resource that has recently emerged to fill this void is the Online Classroom on the After Slavery project website (, which combines primary and secondary sources to enable students and teachers to interpret this period for themselves.

Until the middle of the last century, scholarship on U.S. slave emancipation was characterized by a "chorus of agreement" among all but a small number of historians that Reconstruction had been a tragic mistake, in which unscrupulous northern carpetbaggers, supported by federal power, had taken advantage of an otherwise passive and uncomplaining mass of former slaves to punish the white South. "The American Negroes [were] the only people in the history of the world," one especially condescending account suggested, "that ever became free without any effort of their own." Deeply rooted in a series of racial assumptions consonant with the spirit of Jim Crow, and unable or unwilling to entertain the notion that black Southerners themselves might have contributed to the end of slavery or intervened to shape the society that emerged afterward, "the mass of [End Page 581] American writers," W. E. B. Du Bois observed, indignantly, "have started out so as to distort the facts of the greatest critical period of American history as to prove right wrong and wrong right."2

In the years since, however, the rout of the Dunning School (and with it the notion that corrupt and incompetent black leadership during Reconstruction had despoiled the South) has been so comprehensive that today the interpretive reversal in our understanding of Reconstruction is frequently held up by educators in advanced high school and college and university classrooms to illustrate the very nature of historical controversy.3 Moreover, the revolution in interpretation that Foner's work seemed then to consummate shows no signs of expiring.4 Over the intervening years, historians have continued to complicate our understanding of the period— pushing its regional and temporal boundaries, plotting the variability in freedpeople's room for maneuver, exploring the gendered assumptions bundled into the North's free labor vision for reconstructing the plantation South, and paying closer attention to the organization and role of violence in diverse settings across the former Confederacy.5

This interpretive shift has made its way onto course syllabi and become embedded in most of the core textbooks that historians use in their teaching. Change has accelerated in the last decade or so. In a 1995 review, Thomas Holt observed that textbooks had made "an incomplete transition away from what was conventional several decades ago," and continued to fall "back on explanatory schemes rooted in the conventional narrative."6 For the most widely used high school and undergraduate college level textbooks, at least, the situation has improved—in part because most of these include among their author teams historians who have been prominent in shaping our new understanding of Reconstruction.7 And for advanced high school and undergraduate-level history classes there are primary source collections available edited by scholars who explicitly conceived their projects from within the framework of the new historiography.

A generation ago, the only serious source collection available was the Dunningite historian Walter L. Fleming's Documentary History of Reconstruction—a two-volume set Du Bois regarded as saturated with the...


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