The Historiography of Reconstruction

Reconstruction is an era that gets short shrift in many K-12 history classrooms. It’s often seen as a failure, a period of scalawags and carpetbaggers that led to segregation.

But what is the truth? To answer this question, scholars study legal records and government figures, newspapers, and other sources.

Historiography of the Civil War

In a 2006 interview with Terry Gross for his book “Forever Free,” Eric Foner addressed the myths surrounding Reconstruction and its legacy. He noted that it’s important to see Reconstruction in a different light. “Too many previous views of it portrayed blacks as ignorant, helpless, and incapable and so they didn’t deserve civil rights. And that’s a view of history that persists in the movies ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’ and in bestsellers.”

But scholars have been working hard to place the era in a more positive light. In addition to recasting the Radicals’ motives, new research has highlighted schools, churches, clubs, and mutual aid societies built by freedpeople. In addition, many digital projects have made primary sources and interpretive essays about Reconstruction widely available, including the Smithsonian After Slavery Project, which invites digital volunteers to transcribe and contribute to the collection of Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Historiography of the Reconstruction Era

Many people grew up believing that the period after the Civil War, when the United States military helped newly freed African Americans form governments in southern states, was one of corruption and mismanagement. This image of Reconstruction was instilled by popular films like “Birth of a Nation,” and “Gone With the Wind,” as well as best-selling books.

As a result, Reconstruction continues to get short shrift in many state K-12 history curricula and remains under-interpreted on the national historical landscape. That’s why it is important for us to understand how and why interpretations of the past change. Historian Eric Foner has devoted much of his career to correcting this misconception, both in academic circles and through the books he’s written. He says that understanding the challenges of Reconstruction can help us see why it failed and how the failure made necessary a second revolution, the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Educating the public about this crucial era can also serve as a model for addressing other historical distortions.

Historiography of the Civil Rights Movement

One of the most striking features about Reconstruction is how radically it changed America and yet how enduring overt and covert racial discrimination was after 1877. Early historians, in a lineage that began with the Dunning school, portrayed Reconstruction as a period of corruption and retaliation led by unscrupulous carpetbaggers and scalawags. Historians today, however, generally dismiss this view. Moreover, they argue that the schools, churches, mutual aid societies, clubs, and other institutions built by freedmen, combined with their refusal to accept subordination, placed considerable limits on the ability of whites to accommodate to Reconstruction.

In his influential 1988 book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Eric Foner recast the history of the era and placed African Americans at the center of the story. As a result of his work and that of others, Reconstruction has become a standard interpretive framework for studying American history. This week on FRESH AIR, David Bianculli talks with Foner, a 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner.

Historiography of the Post-Civil Rights Era

The period immediately following the end of slavery and Civil War continues to be misunderstood and misrepresented in popular understanding of American history. It gets short shrift in K-12 curriculums and even college classrooms, and the consequences are real.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that Radical Reconstruction was a failure. That view is based on legal records that showed corruption in Radical-run governments, government figures that show state debts rose quickly during the period and newspaper accounts of the violent attacks against blacks and whites by “carpetbaggers” from the North and opportunistic Southern “scalawags.”

Scholars point out that Reconstruction actually brought about enormous advancements for Black Americans. Freedpeople ran for political office, formed social and civic institutions like schools, churches and mutual aid societies and fought for economic independence from their former masters. They also gained the freedom to vote through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. This was a revolutionary change in democracy, scholars say.

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