Reconstruction Scholars’ Public Engagement: Why It Matters

Reconstruction Scholars’ Public Engagement: Why It Matters

The recent Alabama senatorial race raised the specter of historians’ role in public debates. After suggesting antebellum slavery as a period of American’s greatness, one candidate dismissed the Reconstruction-era amendments and other amendments designed to create “a more perfect union” (except for the Bill of Rights).[1] Post-election demographic analyses revealed the effect of these statements and the impact of grassroots organizing among black women.[2] This special Alabama senatorial election should provide ample evidence for the role of Reconstruction historians in public debates. Media coverage revealed significant gaps in public understandings of Reconstruction. Recent scholarship has yet to reach the non-academic public who accept narratives regarding Redemption and the failures of emancipation. Simply put, Reconstruction scholars need to enter the fray.

My recent book Educational Reconstruction offers a new public narrative for understanding the historical period. An in-depth study of African American public schools in the period between 1865 and 1890 reveals that the questions, concerns, and issues raised in 1865 were not settled at the end of the Freedmen’s School period. Instead, it would take another two decades to resolve issues of freedom, citizenship, and the status of the African American schoolhouse in the postwar landscape. By extending the traditional Reconstruction chronology, this work and subsequent public talks argue that these events signaled the real closure of the post-emancipation moment and the opening of another that continued until the Second Reconstruction. In this narrative, a Congressional vote determined black southerners’ lives and educational affairs.[3] This broadening of Reconstruction’s temporal scope is also evident in recent scholarship showcased in the March 2017 special issue of the Journal of Civil War Era. As Luke Harlow reminds us in his introduction, the future of the field rests in “unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground,” but public engagement is an essential component.[4]

In terms of education, the Blair Education Bill and not the creation of the state-funded public schools is an appropriate ending point to Reconstruction. Influenced by postwar African American educational developments, Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire embarked on a multi-year fight for “the creation of a permanent, uniform, national, public school system in America supported with federal funds.”[5] The Blair Education Bill not only required shifting public school operations from the states to the federal government, but it also attempted to complete the postwar vision of black southerners and their white allies. With roughly 75 percent of federal funds designated for southern public schools, the federal legislation would have eliminated the financial difficulties endured by black southerners in their quest for quality public schools. Their respective state and local government partners would have been able to fully fund the educational systems created in the Reconstruction-era constitutions without difficulty and fulfill their obligation to citizens, white and black. Most importantly, federal oversight would have prevented any distribution irregularities and ensure a degree of protection similar to the initial Freedmen’s Bureau school era.[6]

By 1890, Blair, black urban southerners, and other educational proponents felt that the Fifty-First Congress, better known as the Billion Dollar Congress, was their last best chance. The political demographics of Washington, D.C. changed as a consequence of the 1888 elections. Republicans now controlled the House of Representatives, Senate, and the White House. Most significantly, the 1890 Congressional agenda centered on questions of race, the status of southern African Americans, and race relations with debates on the Butler Emigration Bill and Federal Elections Bill. Unlike previous attempts, Blair and his proponents had every reason to believe that the Fifty-First Congress would ensure its passage.[7]

The March 20th vote revealed otherwise. In a thirty-one to thirty-seven vote, African American public schools simply failed to unite Congress and the nation, as they had in 1865 and after the departure of the Freedmen’s Bureau.[8] The African American press reflected the range of emotions experienced. The Huntsville Gazette offered gratitude to Senator Blair for “his able and manly fight in behalf of Education,” but offered no real recourse other than hope for the revival attempts and perseverance.[9] After a brief hiatus, the Richmond Planet pressed readers into preventing the Republican majority from failing them again with the national election bill while simultaneously urging readers to remain hopeful for a Blair Bill revival in July 1890.[10] By November, black southerners realized that they could no longer rely on the federal government to intervene on behalf of African American education. The Fifty-First Congress and the party of Lincoln had betrayed them.[11]

In addition, new obstacles emerged. Booker T. Washington and his industrial education model provided individuals with an alternative model in the wake of the Blair Education Bill. Following the 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address, Washington and his educational model represented the future. Longstanding white partners of African American public schools abandoned their previous black proponents for Washington. By switching focus, the Peabody Educational Fund and other philanthropists could maintain their commitment to African American education without any guilt.[12] Even Henry Blair openly courted Washington’s support instead of his previous African American allies for a modified Blair Bill.[13] Non-aligned black southerners found themselves excluded from the national educational debate in which the tenets of Washingtonian industrial education model dominated. Coupled with the Blair Bill defeat, the consequences of this shift ultimately closed the door on the revolutionary moment in African American education.

Building upon a rich legacy, African Americans, especially urban southerners, responded to these new setbacks by shifting strategies. Since Confederate defeat, they had used education as a means to position themselves as leaders who could uplift the race but also the post-Civil War nation. As race relations worsened, individuals educated in the Reconstruction-era schools were essential in preparing a new generation for future challenges and access to social mobility, and promoting a vision of freedom, citizenship, and equality. They refined older strategies, adopted new tactics, and sought new partners. They maintained an unwavering support of interracial cooperation, the transformative nature of education, and their non-slave status.

Myths and assumptions regarding Reconstruction and the initial African-American public schools not only influenced the recent election but also current educational policy decisions, voter suppression measures, and economic realities affecting black Alabamians who responded at the ballot box. It is important to change the public debate about Reconstruction and its legacy. This twenty-five-year period does not represent a mistake, as one Alabama Senator candidate hopeful deemed this postbellum change. Rather, it is a continuation of African Americans’ firm belief in the transformative power of education in distancing themselves from their slave past. In the recent election, grassroots efforts applied these Reconstruction-era lessons as well as ones learned from its Jim Crow and desegregation pasts. Education, the power of knowledge and historical understanding of the African American experience remains essential for affecting real social change. Therefore, Reconstruction scholars must reconsider their role in current debates over public education, voter suppression, and misuse of history for electoral gains. Does Doug Jones’s election represent a Third Reconstruction or a post-Blair Education Bill retrenchment?[14] It is unclear, but the issues that galvanized black and white Alabamian voters remain. I, as a Reconstruction scholar living in Alabama, will neither stop being engaged in enriching public understandings of Reconstruction and its legacy, nor will I forgo the constitutional rights afforded me by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments.


[1] Andrew Kaczynski, “Roy Moore in 2011: Getting Rid of Amendments After 10th Would ‘Eliminate Many Problems’,”, Updated December 11, 2017,

[2] “Exit Poll Results: How Different Groups Voted in Alabama,” The Washington Post, December 13, 2017,; Eddie Glaude Jr., “Black Voters Just Sent a Strong Message to Democrats by Electing Doug Jones,” Time, December 13, 2017,

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

[4] Luke E. Harlow, “Introduction: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” Journal of Civil War Era 7 (March 2017): 4-5.

[5] Thomas Upchurch, Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004), 47.

[6] Daniel W. Crofts, “The Black Response to the Blair Education Bill,” Journal of Southern History 37 (February 1971): 42.

[7] Upchurch, Legislating Racism, 2-3, 48.

[8] Gordon B. McKinney, Henry W. Blair’s Campaign to Reform America: From the Civil War to the U.S. Senate (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2013), 129; Upchurch, Legislating Racism, 64-65; Crofts, “The Black Response,” 59-63.

[9] “Untitled,” Huntsville Gazette, March 22, 1890, 2; “The Race Problem Solving Itself!,” Huntsville Gazette, May 17, 1890, 2.

[10] “Washington Letter; The Lodge Federal Election Bill,” Richmond Planet, July 5, 1890, 2.

[11] Crofts, “The Black Response,” 59-63.

[12] James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 245-247.

[13] Henry William Blair to Booker T. Washington, February 21, 1896 in The Booker T. Washington Papers, ed. Louis R. Harlan, vol. 4, 1895-98 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 120.

[14] Manisha Sinha, “Alabama Makes a Noble Historical Turn, as It Has Many Times Throughout its History,” New York Daily News, December 14, 2017,

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is a 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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