- Teaching Race and Reconstruction
W. E. B. Du Bois concludes his 1935 tome Black Reconstruction in America by describing the tragic end of this period as a “crash of hell” falling on African Americans in a “whirlwind” of postemancipation violence. He then depicts this whirlwind as followed by distorted historical accounts, ones that were popular in American academe in the early twentieth century when Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction and that portrayed the period’s experiment in cross-racial democracy—namely the extension of suffrage rights to African American men—as a brief but costly mistake. Du Bois invokes these misrepresentations of history by imagining a college professor addressing his expectant and curious students: “A teacher sits in academic halls,” Du Bois writes, “looks into the upturned face of youth … [and] says that the nation ‘has changed its views in regard to the political relation of races and has at last virtually accepted the ideas of the South upon that subject. The white men of the South need now have no further fear that the Republican Party … will ever again give themselves over to the vain imagination of the political equality of man.’”1 The words Du Bois gives to this imaginary teacher are an actual quotation from a 1902 study of Reconstruction by John W. Burgess, a Columbia University professor and formative voice in the Dunning school of Reconstruction historiography.2 As is well known, Burgess, William A. Dunning, and Dunning’s many students argued that African Americans’ alleged incapacity for virtue and reason had made black enfranchisement a dangerous policy, produced corrupt governments and rampant crime, and made justifiable the subsequent disfranchisement of black men and Jim Crow segregation.3 The primary aim of Du Bois’s work was to counter such distorted histories and instead “to establish the Truth, on which Right in the future may be built.”4 Du Bois thus concludes this extraordinary work by arguing for the importance to the future of accurate accounts of the past and implicitly for the power of teaching history to help right the wrongs of Jim Crow–era segregation and violence. [End Page 67]
Much has changed in the teaching of Reconstruction since Du Bois’s day. Thankfully, the Dunning school has long ago been put to rest. Not only Du Bois but other progressive thinkers repudiated it from the start. And many other scholars would reject the Dunning interpretation by the 1960s, learning from new studies that portrayed both former slaves and Republican leaders sympathetically and that offered serious treatments of the accomplishments of Reconstruction-era state governments.5 In this era, too, educators published calls for a better, less biased approach to teaching Reconstruction in both secondary and college classrooms.6 This revisionist approach to the history of Reconstruction in research and in teaching emerged hand in hand with and was shaped by civil rights activism. Often termed “the Second Reconstruction,” the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s came to fruition just around the centennial of emancipation.7 The movement not only dismantled the legal system of segregation and disfranchisement that had been the outcome of the postemancipation conflict ultimately lost by former slaves; it would also permanently transform what mainstream historians had to say, and teachers had to teach, about that past.
Today, as we hit another milestone, the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, we are again in the midst of a civil rights struggle. What some are calling the “new civil rights movement,” Black Lives Matter has emerged to demand an end to injustices unaddressed by the legal changes achieved in the 1960s, especially the racial bias in police and criminal justice practices that has led to countless murders of black civilians and the mass incarceration of African Americans.8 Perhaps the coincidence of, dare we say, a third reconstruction with the sesquicentennial of the first is the perfect moment to start a new conversation about how we teach, and how we might teach, about the immediate postemancipation, postwar period. Certainly, our teaching about this era does not by itself have the power to produce “Truth” upon which a “Right” to the injustices of today can be built. But engaging and...