It happens every year in at least one of my classes and usually around the time of Reconstruction. One of my students comments or asks a question that reveals a deep frustration with American history and particularly the role of racism in it. And when the issue is raised everything stops in my class to discuss the issue. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that one of the main topics or themes covered in the course is the history of racism — in my opinion the most important issue that I can teach my students. The problem, of course, is the danger that you leave students with a sense that American history is one long tale of corruption and racial hatred.
Part of the problem is that most of my students have never seriously studied the history of racism. I teach in a predominantly white private school with very few black employees and the students are from fairly wealthy families in predominantly white neighborhoods. All of this lends itself to a certain level of defensiveness whenever the topic is raised. Some students no doubt feel threatened or believe they are being made to feel partly responsible for the past. It is difficult to make clear to the students that the goal is to understand how societies develop along racial lines so that we can more clearly address the nature of the problem. How did colonization, the cultivation of tobacco, the demand for rich land, and a labor force shape a slave nation by the middle of the 18th century? Throughout it all I try my best to make it clear that black slaves never surrendered some level of autonomy, but continually negotiated and took advantage of opportunities for self expression and autonomy. The point I am trying to make is that a close look at racism and slavery can be taught in a way that reflects the kind of story that most Americans relish in, which is the desire for freedom involving stories of individuals and groups and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve their ends.
Reconstruction is a perfect opportunity to make this point as clearly as possible to my students. Most of our time in class is spent analyzing how black and white Americans worked together to achieve certain political ends during the turbulent period following the Civil War. The story in and of itself includes all of the components that make for the quintessential American story. Yes, the story ends with the Redeemers back in power, but that did not end black political action – a point that C. Van Woodward reminded us over 50 years ago in Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 and one that I am still learning about as it relates to the Readjusters here in Virginia. The history should be taught not simply to reveal the hideousness of racism, but also as part of the exciting story of American freedom. The trick is to bring my students to the point where they see themselves in the slaves and the newly-freed blacks in the same way that many white Americans have traditionally identified with the Founding generation. In short, these are stories that can empower young people.
This week I will be teaching Reconstruction. I am putting primary documents together, slides, and segments of movies, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. We will analyze both how Americans have traditionally remembered the period and the actual history. It’s always a challenge teaching this section. My approach is to begin by laying out the challenges of Reconstruction for all parties involved and to make clear that the question of the status of the newly-freed slaves and the role of the federal government constituted an immediate problem and one that was not predicted only a few years earlier. I emphasize the steps that African Americans took to secure their freedom even as the Republican party gradually pulled back by the mid-1870’s. This approach is not intended to castigate white Americans for the eventual abandonment of Military Reconstruction, but to reveal the extent to which African Americans were able to engage in political action on the grassroots level and within individual state legislatures. That means on one level the story of Reconstruction becomes a heroic tale of black Americans striving to assert themselves in challenging the racial boundaries to which civil liberties applied.
We will end this section by reading through an article by either David Blight or Ed Ayers. Of course, Blight emphasizes the process by which white Americans shaped their history to the point where it minimized black political action during the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the other hand, given the conflict in Iraq we may read an article by Ed Ayers which explores our collective belief that we can export reconstruction to other parts of the world. I am leaning towards the Ayers article. Perhaps our amnesia regarding the deep-seated racial and political divisions after the Civil War is what allows this administration to shape its foreign policy in a vacuum. Our own experience at reconstruction was less than successful, which raises the question of why we should have any reason to believe that it can be accomplished in parts of the world where the divisions are even more deeply rooted.
One of my favorite classroom exercises takes place during our examination of Reconstruction. I divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to imagine that they are serving on a congressional committee in charge of Reconstruction policy. They must work together and answer the following questions: (1) What responsibilities did the federal government have in protecting the rights of the newly-freed slaves? (2) What steps should have been taken against former Confederates? (3) What was the role of the U.S. military in enforcing the specifics of the federal government’s policy? (4) What was the relation between the former Confederate states and the nation? Once each group arrives at a specific list of responsibilities the class debates the relative merits of each list in order to arrive at one final class policy. I enjoy watching the students think critically about these issues as it provides a window into the question of what might have been had certain conditions been different. Were the harsh realities of Jim Crow inevitable?
I just received the new issue of the journal Civil War History (December 2005). This issue includes essays which “enter the realm of ‘what if’ history by conjecturing a Reconstruction policy that could have produced by 1900 better economic conditions for the South and a racial situation that would not have degenerated into the abyss of violence called Jim Crow segregation.” The essays were originally presented at the 2004 meeting of the Social Science History Association. I’ve already read William Blair’s insightful essay on the role of the military during Reconstruction and its importance in protecting the rights of black southerners. Blair considers the possibilities of maintaining a stronger military presence in the South, but in the end concludes that this “was unthinkable for practical, economic, and political-ideological reasons.” I found most interesting the introductory essay by James L Huston who provides a list of reasons that historians have cited over the years to explain why Reconstruction did not prove to be more successful.
• Refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites
• Inevitability of a capitalist economy to reduce African Americans to wage-earning subsistence
• Cultural gap existed between the market-driven individualism of white reformers and communitarian subsistence goals of the newly-freed slaves over the definition of “work.”
• Republicans were too moderate
• Republicans were limited by the ideals of monetary responsibility, laissez-faire government, states rights, and individualism
• Republicans were too racist to more completely support black Americans
• Republican Party was sufficiently weak in the South
• White Racism: white southerners were willing to engage in violence to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy
I am considering having my students right a short counterfactual essay as a way to bring this group exercise to a close. Here is Huston on the heuristic value of the counterfactual exercise:
Teaching students the importance of context in human affairs is actually a more formidable task than many of us realize. Having students determine the historical forces at work in some period (the parameters of the problem, so to speak), a set of potential solutions, and then sort out what was realistically possible, is a powerful exercise. Moreover, it also provides students with an insight into basic principles of historical inquiry that they can then apply to the present in which they exist: understanding the context, constructing hypothetical solutions, and then testing the proposed solutions against their understanding of the forces and ideologies at work. (p. 363)