On the vestiges of the Civil War and shortfalls of Reconstruction

Laura Free
Associate Professor of History

One of the greatest successes of Reconstruction-era politics was the 14th Amendment. It came out of the need to redress and repair the damage done by the Dred Scott decision. The 14th Amendment recognizes all people born in the U.S. as U.S. citizens. And it declares that all people in the United States have the same civil rights. It’s the foundation of all civil rights legislation and policy in America today, and that’s a profound victory. But like many of the victories of Reconstruction, it’s mitigated. It was undermined very quickly and it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that decades of activism among Black Americans pushed national politicians to give it full power.

Another significant success was the 15th Amendment. It says that the right to vote cannot be abridged on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” At the time, it helped enable southern governments to rebuild around a coalition of Black Americans and white Republicans — the first Black congressmen were elected at this time. Many historians also point to the many significant things these coalition governments accomplished. For example, they rebuilt the southern infrastructure destroyed in the Civil War. And they implemented the first system of public education in the South.

That said, the language of the 15th Amendment was ultimately a compromise. And it had significant negative consequences in the longterm. The Amendment does not say that all adult Americans have the right to vote. Therefore, it implied that states could restrict the vote for other reasons. And so white Americans seeking to control politics after the Reconstruction period did just this. They used things like grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests — all permitted under this Amendment — to prevent Black Americans from voting. The same racist policies were also oppressive to poor white Southerners, many of whom couldn’t pass a literacy test or afford to pay a poll tax. This is just one moment in the American past that demonstrates how clearly harmful racist policies are. If you make equitable policies, it helps everyone; if you seek to make inequitable policies, they wind up hurting everyone.

Another one of the profound problems with Reconstruction was its failure to address the profound structural economic disparity created by enslavement. If you look at land — the capital of the day — you can see how this played out. Because after the war the land in the South, which had been cultivated by the labor of generations of enslaved people, ultimately remained in the hands of white elites who had been enslavers, they retained the economic power. One system that emerged from this fact was sharecropping. In that system, people who did not own land rented it from those who did by paying with a share of their crop at the end of the growing season. This system started as a way for Black southerners to take control of their own time and labor, operating as independent farmers. But it didn’t take long for white landowners to use the system for their own financial gain, twisting it into something profoundly exploitative and oppressive. Landowners would require the people who rented land to buy their farming equipment and seeds from them, as well as basic supplies like groceries, charging such outrageous prices that often by the end of the season there was very little money left after the crop was “shared.” It ultimately financially benefitted the white landowners, redistributing wealth from the farmer to the landowner. And it is a really telling example of how structural racism is manifested in economic and policy decisions. With longterm consequences.

Another failure of Reconstruction happened in the way that its history was told. Very soon after Reconstruction’s end in the late 1870s, white southerners started to engage in a systematic campaign to ensure their version of that period’s history was accepted and taught to young people. One organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, printed textbooks that were distributed widely in southern schools and used to justify the campaign of racism and terror against people involved in Reconstruction governments. Academics, including those in the north, also adopted a negative view of the Reconstruction period, perpetuating that same problematic narrative. Numerous Black scholars like W.E.B. DuBois called out this bad history for decades. Finally, by the early 1960s, white academic historians were starting to recognize how wrong the earlier history was. But it took a long time — and shows again how hard it is to undo and break down systemic racism and institutions created to benefit one group and keep down another. As a historian, it indicates to me the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. And the power that history can have.

My goal as a historian and educator is to provide students with tools to evaluate historical evidence to be able to think about history for themselves. One of the tools I’ve adopted over the last year has been a chapter from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. In it, he emphasizes the role that policy choices play in creating racist ideas and institutions. This gives us all a foundation and language for grappling with primary texts and for assessing past policies. It also emphasizes that racist policy is a choice that gets made, and so one that can be undone through different choices. In some ways that’s a really liberating idea — to know the history, recognize it and make more equitable choices moving forward.