Teaching Reconstruction and “Racial Amnesia”

Earlier today a reader asked how he might utilize this video of Eric Foner exploring the topic of “racial amnesia” throughout American history with his students. What follows are just a couple of quick thoughts about how you might go about this.

One way is to have students view it alongside a particular selection from W.E.B. DuBois’s book, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (1935). At the very end, DuBois includes excerpts from history textbooks in use in the 1930s that cover Reconstruction.

Students can compare these selections with what their own textbooks have to say about this period and hopefully appreciate the influence they have on how different generations are taught about race and how racist ideas get passed down.


How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and establish democracy

What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? Helen Boardman has made a study of current textbooks and notes these three dominant theses:

i. All Negroes were ignorant.

“All were ignorant of public business.” (Woodburn and Moran, “Elementary American History and Government,” p. 397.)

“Although the Negroes were now free, they were also ignorant and unfit to govern themselves.” (Everett Barnes, “American History for Grammar Grades,” p. 334.)

‘”The Negroes got control of these states. They had been slaves all their lives, and were so ignorant they did not even know the letters of the alphabet. Yet they now sat in the state legislatures and made the laws.” (D. H. Montgomery, “The Leading Facts of American History,” p. 332.)

“In the South, the Negroes who had so suddenly gained their freedom did not know what to do with it.” (Hubert Cornish and Thomas Hughes, “History of the United States for Schools,” p. 345.)

“In the legislatures, the Negroes were so ignorant that they could
only watch their white leaders — carpetbaggers, and vote aye or no
as they were told.” (S. E. Forman, “Advanced American History,”
Revised Edition, p. 452.)

“Some legislatures were made up of a few dishonest white men and several Negroes, many too ignorant to know anything about law-making.” (Hubert Cornish and Thomas Hughes, “History of the United States for Schools,” p. 349.)

2. All Negroes were lazy, dishonest and extravagant.

“These men knew not only nothing about the government, but also cared for nothing except what they could gain for themselves.” (Helen F. Giles, “How the United States Became a World Power,” p. 7.)

“Legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.” (William J. Long, “America— A History of Our Country,” P-39 2 -)

“Some Negroes spent their money foolishly, and were worse off than they had been before.” (Carl Russell Fish, “History of America,” p. 385-)

“This assistance led many freed men to believe that they need no longer work. They also ignorantly believed that the lands of their former masters were to be turned over by Congress to them, and that every Negro was to have as his allotment ‘forty acres and a mule.’ ‘ (W. F. Gordy, “History of the United States,” Part II, p. 336.)

“Thinking that slavery meant toil and that freedom meant only idleness, the slave after he was set free was disposed to try out his freedom by refusing to work.” (S. E. Forman, “Advanced American History,” Revised Edition.)

“They began to wander about, stealing and plundering. In one week, in a Georgia town, 150 Negroes were arrested for thieving.” (Helen F. Giles, “How the United States Became a World Power,” p. 6.)

3. Negroes were responsible for bad government during Reconstruction:

“Foolish laws were passed by the black law-makers, the public money was wasted terribly and thousands of dollars were stolen straight. Self-respecting Southerners chafed under the horrible regime.” (Emerson David Fite, “These United States,” p. 37.)

“In the exhausted states already amply ‘punished’ by the desolation of war, the rule of the Negro and his unscrupulous carpetbagger and scalawag patrons, was an orgy of extravagance, fraud and disgusting incompetency.” (David Saville Muzzey, “History of the American People,” p. 408.)

Students will likely be surprised by many of the historical claims made in these textbooks. Start by making sure they have some understanding of Jim Crow culture in the 1930s. From there, ask your students to do the following:

  • List some of the most significant differences with how their own sources interpret Reconstruction.
  • Ask students to consider the roles that African Americans performed both during the Civil War as soldiers and activists and as politicians throughout Reconstruction.
  • Have students reflect on why this history had become so distorted or forgotten entirely by the 1930s. To what extent did this history serve to justify the political and racial oppression during the Jim Crow Era.

You may also want to use a recent piece I wrote for The Daily Beast on the efforts of the UDC to regulate textbooks at the turn of the twentieth century. It includes an image from a 1957 Virginia textbook depicting the life of slaves that students will also find troubling assuming their teacher has been doing his/her job.

6 comments… add one
  • This is somewhat new to me.

    These ideas on the list are VERY old, and I’ve never heard any of them in my lifetime. The oral story I grew up with said that only evil white Yankees oppressed the south during Reconstruction. Blacks were almost totally absent, although I’ve heard my mother repeat the claim that white farms were divided up and given to former slaves (not true). I’ve also heard some loyal slave stories about how they came back to work for pay.

    My father was born in 1938. The history he received, at home and in school, was entirely an epic of white people. His great-grandfather was in the 61st VA at the Crater, but he had never heard about the USCT presence until I told him in 2012 (and even then, he was skeptical).

    By the time I came along, blacks were completely omitted from the oral story. They weren’t even being slandered or stereotyped, they just weren’t there. It was all white men fighting over tariffs.

  • Kevin:

    A friendly suggestion: On first reference, give readers the full name of UDC, i.e. United Daughters of the Confederacy. Even some faithful readers of your blog (like me) might have trouble figuring out what the acronym stands for.

    Happy new year.

    Keep up the great work. Like all of your blog readers, I can’t wait for your book on the myth of black Confederates.

    • Thanks for the reminder and thanks for the kind words re: the book. Happy New Year.

  • What I don’t get is du Bois’ insistence that “The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and establish democracy.” I checked the rest of the chapter in du Bois’ book, and he never considers the possibility of Northern “racial amnesia.” Neither does anything he cites point definitely in the direction of the Northern shame that he claims.

    • He makes it sound like the USCTs turned the tide, saving the Union. I don’t think the North had racial amnesia, I think that DuBois was just a little biased in how he interpreted events.

      The North had nothing be ashamed of because the Colored Troops didn’t really save the Union, abolish slavery or establish democracy. They were a help, sure … but the North would have still won without them.

      • Yes, du Bois was a little biased. It’s obvious from these stereotypes he deploys at the end of his book: “Immediately in Africa, a black back runs red with the blood of the lash; in India, a brown girl is raped; in China, a coolie starves; in
        Alabama, seven darkies are more than lynched; while in London, the white limbs of a prostitute are hung with jewels and silk. Flames of jealous murder sweep the earth, while brains of little children smear the hills.”

        But his scholarship, rather than the conclusions he draws, are great.


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