Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work

Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work

This week we share our first Field Dispatch from Dr. Hilary Green, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

Teaching Reconstruction is hard. This is a difficult admission, especially for someone who has written about the period. Before launching into possible strategies, there are two caveats to the advice provided below. First, I teach in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. My department and often my classes are located in a postwar campus building named after Basil Manly, the minister who delivered a prayer at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration.[1] As a result, my students deeply understand his role in slavery at the university and how the memory of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction shapes both their understanding of the past and current campus experiences. Second, I do not teach the United States survey, but instead an upper-level undergraduate, nineteenth-century black history course. Some of this advice may be adaptable to different levels and programs, depending on your student population. My students are typically well versed in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality and Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crow.[2] Yet, even these more-socially aware students have difficulties with Reconstruction. The strategies I suggest have been tested and refined. I believe they work for teaching across a spectrum of students.

First, center your initial lecture on the newly emancipated. Since I am fortunate to teach Reconstruction over a series of lectures, I have developed an opening exercise that untethers students from any misconceptions and centers them on the major feature of Reconstruction–the newly emancipated African Americans. Students are divided into small groups of recently emancipated individuals who have been given twenty-four hours to decide between staying on the plantation or leaving. After selecting a last name, students address a series of considerations for survival if they decide to leave, or provisions to include in a contract with their former owner if they remain. Students have ten to fifteen minutes to complete the exercise.

“Carolina Singers,” Hovey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carte de visite, c. 1870s. Courtesy of the author.

Following the opening exercise, I use photography to discuss how African Americans defined their new identities. Thanks to a personal collection of early African American photography, students are able to view and hold several examples and reflect on the opening exercise. In reading these historic photographs, students bear witness to the Carolina Singers, a group of newly emancipated men and women engaged in a fundraising tour for the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, South Carolina. They also grapple with the contrasting depictions of the postwar black Mississippi community through images of John Roy Lynch and an unidentified Mississippian dressed in worn clothing while his eyes beam with the joys of freedom. These visual texts give voice to the many unidentified individuals who left little to no written records but celebrated their new status and existence through photographic technology. For those without such collections, digital examples from the Library of Congress will suffice. The Black Codes, reunification, education, and political achievements also garner special attention before we launch into frank discussions over Reconstruction’s failed economic policies.

Second, engage with the era’s violence, especially when teaching students familiar with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. By centering the initial lectures on emancipated individuals, students become open to examining the second major feature of Reconstruction–violence. Newspaper reports, the Ku Klux Klan hearings, and other sources detailing the violent suppression of white and black Republicans force students to confront some uncomfortable truths about Redemption. For every revolution, there is a counter-revolution. Redemption was neither heroic nor peaceful. Perceptions of emancipation and black freedom unleashed a brutal and widespread backlash. Their previous K-12 education either removed this understanding of Reconstruction or reduced it to the actions of a few individuals. Such simplistic K-12 understandings inform these strategies for teaching Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow segregation, which overturned the era’s gains until the triumphant Civil Rights Movement.

Third, rethink the periodization. I do not teach 1877 as the ending point. Rather, I consider the long retreat from Reconstruction locally, regionally, and nationally. My students read a sampling of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, specifically United States v. Cruikshank, the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, and Plessy v. Ferguson. They learn about the Panic of 1873 and the intermittent periods of recession and depression that enabled white Americans to see the issues experienced by former enslaved people as a southern problem. The national complicity not only encouraged violence but also forced some black southerners’ adoption of an approach best articulated in Booker T. Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address in a concerted effort to preserve black life and rights.[3] They also learn about the alternatives to the long national retreat, including the Readjusters and the Blair Bill.[4] By taking the long view, students are able to better contextualize the ending of the revolutionary era and the emergence of Jim Crow.

Fourth, remember the rhetoric of hope. By centering the lectures on emancipated individuals, violence, and a long retreat from Reconstruction, students are amazed by African Americans’ hopefulness for a better future. At the end of the unit on Reconstruction, I return to the opening exercise and encourage students to view the 1890s through the eyes of individuals who witness the greatest revolution in their lifetime – abolition and change in status from property to citizen. African Americans’ ability to not only assert themselves, but also have their humanity recognized, remained a powerful force. After all, Reconstruction embodied the realization of African Americans’ antebellum rhetoric of hope for abolition. This reality and the revolutionary opportunities achieved with three constitutional amendments, expansion of state and national citizenship, development of a black professional middle class, and the creation of community institutions continued to inspire individuals to persevere, fight, and create meaningful lives. They did not and could not predict the future. Again, I turn to the sources of ordinary African Americans committed to continuing their upward trajectory from chattel and quasi-free to full American citizens.

The rhetoric of hope allowed for perseverance and survival during the post-Reconstruction era. Given the existing political moment, Reconstruction offers both a framework and countless examples of men, women, and children who maintained the rhetoric of hope and preserved. Often, students need such historical examples for thinking through contemporary issues of race, citizenship, and violence directed toward marginalized communities.

These strategies will make teaching Reconstruction less difficult. Students will become better equipped to critically engage with this important period in American history and develop the necessary skills for understanding subsequent social movements past and present. Beyond these standard Student Learning Outcomes, Reconstruction enables students to appreciate the resiliency of the human condition by exploring a group who went from property and quasi-free to citizen. By devoting more time to this crucial historical era, these strategies will allow students to have a deeper understanding of how African Americans’ active participation as political actors committed to reshaping the nation helped to bring about fundamental change to notions of citizenship and American democratic ideals.


[1] A. James Fuller, “Basil Manly,” Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1182, accessed September 25, 2017.

[2] Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43 (July 1991): 1244-1291; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

[3] Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1901), 217-225, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/washington/washing.html, accessed September 25, 2017.

[4] Hilary Green, Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 157-173, 185-199.

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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