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From the Archives… Reconstruction at 150

From Wikimedia, New Orleans 1874, clash between the racially integrated police and the segregationist White League.

New Orleans 1874, clash between the racially integrated police and the segregationist White League. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The OAH’s ongoing commemoration project on the Civil War at 150 has now wrapped up. At the beginning of the long sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, it’s worth looking back at the ways that the Journal of American History and the Organization of American Historians have dealt with this complicated period. We have selected the following materials for your use as you think about ways to teach or commemorate the many sesquicentennial anniversaries of Reconstruction.

First, if you’re looking for a talented speaker on the topics of Reconstruction, the OAH Distinguished Lecturership program has some options. Also check out videos of lectures by Distinguished Lecturers such as David Blight on “The Civil War in American Memory,” David Goldfield on “How the Civil War Created a Nation,” and Steven Hahn on “Why the Civil War Mattered.”

Among the most recent items in the JAH archive, the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History featured an essay by Nina Silber called “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered.” Silber sought to discover “how much it [reconciliation] reaches back into the era of Reconstruction and forward into the twentieth century.” She also discusses how reconciliation “impinges on a wide range of approaches—cultural, political, biographical—even extending beyond the parameters of the historian’s discipline.” Also check out the JAH podcast on the topic.

Silber also wrote the film review “Black and White in the Free State of Jones.” She analyzed how the film Free State of Jones “unabashedly tackles Reconstruction, refusing to draw a neat point of closure with Appomattox.” Likewise, Matthew E. Stanley reviewed Free State of Jones for Process. He argued that the film “might be the first to properly and historically situate Reconstruction in full relation to the war itself, serving as a vigorous repudiation of Lost Cause mythology.”

Looking back into the eighties, a volume of the OAH Magazine of History from 1989 on “The Reconstruction Era” offers a snapshot from almost three decades ago of how historians grappled with the questions raised by Reconstruction. Eric Foner wrote, “Anyone who attended high school before 1960 learned that Reconstruction was an era of unrelieved sordidness in American political and social life.” But, he pointed out, “In the past thirty years, no period of American history has seen a broadly accepted point of view so completely overturned as Reconstruction.”

A series of Journal of American History pieces participated in this shift. In her 2005 JAH article “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Klu Klux Klan,” Elaine Frantz Parsons discussed the Confederate veterans who founded the KKK and their influence throughout the era. Another JAH piece from 1981, “Beyond the Realm of Social Consensus: New Meanings of Reconstruction for American History,” written by Armstead L. Robinson, that described Reconstruction as a time period which “transformed all aspects of America life,” and caused an “epochal social and economic revolution.” The article looks specifically at political racism of the era and how it changed social politics and was influenced by the growth of American capitalism.

The Civil Rights movement during the mid-twentieth century had a clear impact on the historiography of Reconstruction. At the beginning of his 1974 piece “Preserving the Constitution: The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction,” Michael Les Benedict recognized this:

In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, Reconstruction history underwent its own reconstruction. As twentieth-century Americans became more and more aware of their own racial crisis, historians reassessed the racial crisis which faced their ancestors, bringing to the profession and to the public a new appreciation of the problems Americans faced in restoring national and state governments in which the personal and civil rights of black Americans would be protected for the first time.

Likewise, just a year after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, James M. McPherson wrote a piece in the JAH discussing the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed African Americans equal rights to public services and jury service. From the vantage of the mid-1960s, McPherson could not help but also note its shortcomings. Yet, he wrote,

Despite its failure in practice, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was a symbolic victory for the equalitarian ideals of Reconstruction and an historical bridge between the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Older JAH pieces addressed different kinds of questions. William A. Russ Jr.’s 1938 essay asked “Was There Danger of a Second Civil War During Reconstruction?” This question is based in Russ’ review of radical resistance, KKK riots and violence, and President Andrew Johnson’s willingness to enforce new policies with arms.

Before concluding, it’s worth considering the changing response within the pages of the Journal to perhaps the important book in the historiography of Reconstruction—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. Unsurprisingly, considering the era it was written in, the initial review of the book by historian Arthur C. Cole’s was tepid at best. Though now widely regarded as the book that opened the door for Foner and other revisionists to reimagine Reconstruction and to challenge hidebound Dunning School narratives, Cole regarded the book instead as an overtly political work of history. He emphasized what he saw as Du Bois’s “lapses” and “discrepancies between well established facts and extravagant generalization,” and derided the work for the “strain [it places] upon the facts to make them fit what Dr. Du Bois regards as the right answer to the Negro question.” This was a far cry from the assessment that historian Robin D. G. Kelley would make of Du Bois’s work in the pages of the Dec. 1999 issue of the JAH, when he declared it to be one of “the most important contributions to modern historiography in any field or era.”