restricted access 6. Reconstruction: Gender and Labor
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j. vincent lowery 130 Chapter Six Reconstruction Gender and Labor J. Vincent Lowery Historians have always described the transition from slavery to free labor in the South as a difficult process. Historiographical debates have turned on assessments of freedpeople’s struggle for autonomy, planters’ determination to preserve some semblance of the old order, and the intent of northern Republicans and government agents. Recent scholarship incorporating the theme of gender to the study of this transition illustrates the distinctive experiences of freedwomen and refines the meaning of freedom to account for their experiences and the complexities of this process.1 At the turn of the twentieth century, Columbia University professors John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning trained the first generation of professional historians, many of them southern born, who studied Reconstruction. African American historian W. E. B. Du Bois summarized the primary qualities of their works: “First, endless sympathy with the white South; second, ridicule, contempt, or silence for the Negro; third, a judicial attitude towards the North.” Whereas the Dunningites argued that Congress committed a grievous error by empowering African Americans, Du Bois, influenced by Marxism, proposed that the failure of black and white workers to unite in common cause represented the greatest fault of Reconstruction. Race, not class interests, determined poor whites’ actions. According to Du Bois, “The old anti130 Gender and Labor 131 Negro labor rivalry between white and black workers kept the labor elements after the war from ever really uniting in a demand to increase labor power by Negro suffrage and Negro economic stability .” African Americans consequently found themselves forced back into a condition resembling slavery, while white workers were “directed in the South by the same methods that were dominating [them] in the North.” Although most scholars did not embrace Du Bois’s Marxist interpretation of Reconstruction, a new generation of historians who shared his sympathetic view of African Americans and his negative assessment of southern whites had emerged by the mid-twentieth century.2 Speaking to the Southern Historical Association at its annual meeting in New Orleans in 1938, historian Francis B. Simkins called for the objective study of Reconstruction, a challenge echoed by Howard K. Beale at a subsequent meeting. Simkins, coauthor of the revisionist South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932) with Robert H. Woody, proposed that such research would reveal that “freedpeople bargained themselves into an agricultural situation unlike that of slavery and from their viewpoint advantageous.” Simkins argued that sharecropping represented “a revolutionary reform more important in the actual life of the freedmen than the sensational but largely unsuccessful political changes attempted at the time.” Beale criticized the Marxist interpretation of Reconstruction but nonetheless credited Du Bois with providing historians with a clearer perspective on the African American experience “that every future historian must reckon with.” Beale anticipated that previous scathing critiques of freedpeople and their northern allies would give way to more balanced perspectives. By the mid-twentieth century, the sway of the Dunning School interpretation began to ease as revisionist scholars questioned their predecessors’ conclusions, particularly the belief that Reconstruction was in fact a “tragic era.”3 In The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (1965), Kenneth M. Stampp synthesized the emerging revisionist consensus on the era. Whereas the Dunningites credited President Andrew Johnson and the newly reconstructed southern state governments with reasonably resolving the nation’s postwar dilemmas, Stampp and his fellow j. vincent lowery 132 revisionists blamed the president and the governments established under his Reconstruction plan for the plight of freedpeople. The revisionists observed southern whites’ refusal to accept the former slave’s new status: “The future for him was that of an illiterate , unskilled, propertyless, agricultural worker” who must be compelled to labor. The Dunning School accepted this condition as the natural one for African Americans, but revisionists rejected this labor system as merely a “return to a modified form of involuntary servitude,” which Stampp, writing during the time of the civil rights movement, proclaimed “introduced the whole pattern of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and segregation into the postwar South.”4 Republicans, particularly the Radical Republicans, once deemed the source of disorder during Reconstruction, were heralded by revisionists like Stampp for their efforts on behalf of freedpeople, mired in a “condition of economic helplessness.” Land reforms desired by Radicals failed to materialize, one of the great shortcomings of the Republican plan of Reconstruction. Sounding a critical note, historian John Hope Franklin argued “there was no significant breakup of the plantation system during and after [R]econstruction. . . . [W]hile...


Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Southern States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
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