A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

No matter how “bitter the chastening rod,” to borrow from the Black National Anthem, the second part of the Henry Louis Gates’s documentary on Reconstruction shows how African Americans kept fighting well after the Compromise of 1877. Part two of this engaging documentary tackles the long retreat from Reconstruction (to read a review of Part one, click here). In what Eric Foner calls a “Twilight Zone,” the remaining two hours reveal African Americans who refused to abandon the promise of Reconstruction, even as the nation gave up on them legally, politically, economically, and culturally.[1]

Focusing on the transitional period of 1877 to 1896, the first hour of Part two (episode 3) examines the active and often violent dismantling of Reconstruction. Convict leasing, lynching, and sharecropping eroded the gains achieved by African Americans. These processes contributed to the culling of African American leaders and entrepreneurs who posed threats to Henry Grady’s New South vision, and they also limited future success by entrapping African Americans in either debt or prison labor camps. Moreover, the combined and often reinforcing consequences of Supreme Court decisions, Congress’s inability to curb the unraveling of Reconstruction-era Constitutional gains, and redeemed southern governments’ policies and laws, all contributed to the rise of the Jim Crow era and disfranchisement.

As with the first two hours of the documentary, Gates truly reveals African Americans’ resilience and their refusal to accept the loss of rights. The Exoduster movement, as explained by Nell Irvin Painter, shows how some African Americans responded with their feet, migrating to the American West.[2] Others chose to create all-black settlements and towns in southern states, while others continued to fight against the increasing injustices by turning to African American newspapers. Ida B. Wells actively used her pen to combat dominant rape narratives and perceptions of African American criminality as justifications for lynchings. As historian Jelani Cobb stated, these newspapers provided the first draft of African American history. With the death of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington’s ascendancy to national prominence could not prevent the attacks on civil rights that would not be successfully challenged until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

The second hour of Part two (episode 4) focuses on the story’s nadir and the role of southern propaganda in achieving victory with the cultural redemption of Reconstruction. Through the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s construction of monuments, textbook campaigns, and other activities, the growing Lost Cause ideology created political legitimacy for the work of later segregationists, White Citizens Council members, and monument defenders following the unrest in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. In addition to the legacy of UDC efforts, explained by Karen Cox and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, Rhae Lynn Barnes explores the history of blackface and its popularity as contributing to the long cultural retreat of Reconstruction. By “blackening up their skin,” white Americans claimed cultural authority over black life, ranging from performances held at churches, schools, and theaters, to political campaign rallies.

African American Public School Photograph, c. 1900, Petersburg, Virginia. Courtesy of the author’s personal collection.

Despite this purposeful rewriting of Reconstruction, African Americans embraced photography and reclaimed their dignity and humanity. As a collector of early African American photography, I appreciated this portion of the documentary. These diverse photographs showcased the men, women, and children who persisted through living and documenting meaningful lives created at the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, W. E. B. Du Bois employed black photography as ammunition in the cultural war being waged with his “Exhibit of American Negros” at the 1900 Paris Exposition. George Walker and Bert Williams also reclaimed blackface and their cultural authority with the “Two Real Coons” performances. Through the Niagara Movement, National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), and the New Negro Movement, African Americans kept fighting while finding restorative healing in segregated African American safe spaces. Yet, even these counter-resistance efforts could not stop white Americans from embracing D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of Nation (1915) and a national reconciliationist impulse grounded in not only whiteness, but also in the failure of Reconstruction.

As the Reconstruction moment draws to its ultimate conclusion in the documentary, African Americans and their radical white allies continued to imagine a different type of world. Rather than accept second-class citizenship, they kept fighting. The tastes of Reconstruction-era freedoms drove their sacrifice, activism, and demands for justice. Gates concludes that Reconstruction never ended but remains an unfinished revolution, in which the nation is still grappling with what it means to be a “multiracial nation with equality for all.”[3]

Overall, the second part of this four-hour, engaging, teachable documentary captures the complexity of the long retreat of Reconstruction. It brings to popular audiences the recent scholarship in Reconstruction studies and African American history. Gates, moreover, showcases the rich diversity of stellar scholars on screen. For once, white male scholars appear as the minority.

While comprehensive in scope and content, the documentary is not perfect. Gates’s telling of this complex and misunderstood era still permits the silencing of black women’s activism within the National Association of Colored Women and even the rise of New Negro Womanhood, to favor a rather conventional narrative centered on the Niagara Movement and emergence of the NAACP. The Exodusters and all-black Western towns also allowed for the continued displacement of Native Americans. Yet, they are absent from Part two. The southern focus also ignores the complex experiences of the Reconstruction North, Midwest, and West. Despite these missed opportunities, Henry Louis Gates’s Reconstruction: America After the Civil War is a worthwhile update to previous documentaries. Regardless how stony the road, Gates demonstrates in this fine documentary the necessity of understanding Reconstruction and its legacy in the present.

 

 

[1] Each episode appears on PBS.org, at https://www.pbs.org/weta/reconstruction/episodes/.

[2] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 3, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 4, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. 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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