Facing the “False Picture of Facts”: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

Facing the “False Picture of Facts”: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

In 1884, formerly enslaved African American author and newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune wrote Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, his analysis of the political and economic conditions in the South after the formal end of Reconstruction in 1877. He described the uncertain reality facing freedmen less than two decades after their emancipation. “There is no question today in American politics,” Fortune argued, “more unsettled than the negro question.” Fortune, a newspaper man himself, condemned the national mainstream press for not only failing to advocate for the rights of Black people, but also misrepresenting them as “incapable of imbibing the distorted civilization in the midst of which they live and have their being.” “Day after day,” Fortune explained, “they weave a false picture of facts—facts which must measurably influence the future historian of the times.”[1]

Sadly, the history of Reconstruction would for too long be based on these false facts and clouded by the fog of white supremacy. With few notable exceptions, until the second half of the twentieth century a narrative of unprepared freedmen, cruel and exploitative northerners, and southern nostalgia for the lost confederate cause dominated the story of Reconstruction in both academia and popular culture. From the 1950s through the present, historians worked to undo this narrative distortion, yet for many Americans the period remains one of the least understood in American history.

The PBS production Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, executive produced and hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., takes this new history and presents it as an engaging, thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching documentary. The film is divided into four, hour-long episodes, televised in two parts (all episodes are also available online). Part one tells the story of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, a hopeful time during what W. E. B. Du Bois called African Americans’ “brief moment in the sun.” These were the tumultuous early years of rising hopes and daunting challenges. Part one concludes with the darkening horizon following the end of federal Reconstruction and the so-called redemption of white supremacist southerners.

Reconstruction is remarkable for its ability to tell the story of the past, while never losing its anchor in present day. Beginning with the tragic and racist slaughter of Black churchgoers in the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, the film uses the story of Reconstruction to understand the persistence of white supremacist ideology and violence in America. What happened at Mother Emanuel was not a “singular horror,” but part of a tragic and dishonorable history of racism and violence going back to the end of the Civil War. “Violence,” historian Shawn Alexander explains, “goes side-by-side in American history to the creation of white supremacist racial ideology that has driven us from slavery all the way to the present day.”[2] The roots of Charleston, the film shows, start in Reconstruction.

Some of the most celebrated experts on Reconstruction guide the viewer through this history. Especially notable is the expertise of scholars like Martha Jones, Kidada Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others who push the study of Reconstruction forward with new knowledge of citizenship, the law, and the lived experience of African Americans during Reconstruction, especially that of African American women. The film, however, does not rely only on “talking head”-style commentary by academic experts to move the narrative forward. In several scenes, Gates interviews historians, descendants of Reconstruction era leaders, clergy, and lawmakers. He engages them in discussion of not just their knowledge of the past, but also what the history of the era means to them today. For the viewer, this provides an intimate connection to the past as witness to a casual conversation, providing an intimate present-day understanding of the resonance of the era.

In addition to the excellent commentary, Reconstruction makes powerful use of partially animated segments of black and white figures. These scenes typically illustrate primary testimony, showing moments of horrific trauma or violence, conveying the feeling of a nightmare or bad memory, Figures appear largely faceless, capturing not only the sense that the subjects could stand in for multiple events, but also the anonymity of the thousands of victims of atrocities for whom there is no record.

Reconstruction tells three intertwined narratives. It follows the story of recently freed men and women as they chart a future for themselves in a post-Civil War world. It also describes the ways the federal government dealt with the nation’s new post-war realities and contended with African Americans as a part of the American body politic. Finally, and overlaid over the whole story, is the creation and persistence of Confederate mythmaking that is going to influence deeply how the history of the first two themes is told.

Early in the first episode, Gates embeds African American agency firmly in the narrative of Reconstruction, and Black power and autonomy is celebrated throughout. “To a remarkable degree,” he states, “it was the slaves themselves” who were the catalysts of emancipation and ultimately the end of the Civil War.[3] Rejecting the former narrative that freedmen and women were passive pawns unprepared or unworthy of freedom, the documentary shows how almost immediately they went about searching for lost family members, building homes, acquiring land, starting businesses and institutions, and serving in elected office. The episode notes the importance of Black Civil War service as driving a new sense of pride and post-war empowerment. Yet, the freedmen and women faced severe challenges. Andrew Johnson, who replaced Lincoln after his assassination, thwarted attempts to redistribute slaveholders’ land. This undermined the struggle for Black economic independence, the fallout of which would continue for generations. Nevertheless, the rate of progress was remarkable. “There are not many moments in recorded human history,” Kimberlé Crenshaw concludes in episode one, “where a group that was so subordinated, so disposed, would within the spread of a decade actually be fully integrated into the highest echelons of political society—it’s almost like the decade advanced the possibilities of freedom one-hundred years.”[4]

The federal government was sometimes an ally and sometimes an antagonist to this quick progress. Rarely in United States history have the actions and events in Congress and the federal government had such an immediate and direct effect on the lives of its people. Episode one tells the story of how, soon after the end of the war, Congress passed amendments and legislation prohibiting slavery, establishing citizenship, and prohibiting racial discrimination in suffrage. They also passed laws limiting racial discrimination and attempting to curb racial violence. Yet, the federal government failed to go far enough to help freedmen and women gain an economic foothold, and the fate of future rights remained subject to the political will of elected officials.

Photo of Robert Smalls, Civil War hero and a proponent of Black rights during Reconstruction. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In many ways, however, it was African Americans themselves who made any progress at the federal level possible. Episode two focuses on how, as voters, they helped preserve a Republican majority in Congress, including Black senators and congressmen, and helped win Grant the White House. Especially poignant is the film’s discussion of Robert Smalls, the formerly enslaved, South Carolinian Civil War hero elected to the House of Representatives in the 1870s. Gates interviews his great-great grandson who recalls the importance of Smalls as a model for understanding African American successes of the era. “This is American history,” he tells Gates, “Robert’s story is a metaphor for this broader movement that empowered a whole race of people.”[5] Hard fought progress, however, would be undone nearly as quickly as it had come.

Episode two of part one ends in the late 1870s with the controversial compromise leading to the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the removal of federal troops from the south. The decline of the successes of Reconstruction by the end of the 1870s would be given a cultural and ideological defense by emerging white supremacist ideas that degraded African Americans and placed white southerners as the primary victims of the Civil War and its aftermath. Propaganda campaigns painted black leaders as ridiculous caricatures, Reconstruction as an utter failure, and elevated Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee to king-like status. These false narratives counteracted and undermined the realities of Black progress and ascendancy. As Shawn Alexander tells the audience, white attackers brutalized Black men and women “because they had been too successful…it flies in the face of the idea that [African Americans] are inferior.”[6]

Alfred Rudolph Waud, “The First Vote,” Harper’s Weekly, November 16, 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

Coupled with an economic downturn that helped Democrats win northern elections, violent voter suppression propelled white Democrats into office across the South, immediately halting federal protections so necessary to prevent the slaughter of black citizens. As Gates closes the first two hours, “the success of Reconstruction depended on the will of the nation to hold the line against the forces of violence eager to undo it. As the nation’s will faltered, the rights of African Americans would be sacrificed to political expediency.”[7] Part one ends with the tragic collapse of formal Reconstruction and the dismantling of federal protection of Black rights and lives. Clinging tentatively to the hopes of the past, African Americans faced an uncertain future.

While the first half of Reconstruction tells an impactful story and rebuts the previous narrative of the Lost Cause, it remains largely confined to Southern states and limited to a fairly standard revisionist narrative. Recently historians have pushed the study of Reconstruction in exciting new directions not addressed in the film. Historians like Heather Cox Richardson, who appears in the film, push the geographic boundaries to look at places beyond the former Confederacy, like the American West. Others have shown how women’s rights and American labor organizing expanded at unprecedented rates during this same period. The Journal of the Civil War Era’s forum on the future of Reconstruction studies is an excellent place to start.[8]

These limitations, however, are less critique than points for further exploration. Reconstruction provides an engaging reexamination of what Gates calls a “chaotic, exhilarating, and ultimately devastating period.” It provides an effective preamble for the stark erosion of Reconstruction, Black freedom, and American democracy that continues in the second two hours of the film. The film is a powerful counter-force to the “false picture of facts” that proliferated and continue to have a hold on how many Americans understand the era. It captures with stark images and commentary the lost opportunity, the failure of which we are continuing to reckon with today.

 

 

[1] T. Thomas Fortune, Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South (New York: Fords, Howard, and Hulbert, 1884), 13-14.

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

[3] Reconstruction, episode 1.

[4] Reconstruction, episode 1.

[5] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[6] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[7] Reconstruction, episode 2.

[8] “Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, accessed April 21, 2019, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies/.

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood

Millington Bergeson-Lockwood is a historian of African American history, race, law and politics. He received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2011. His book, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston was published with the University of North Carolina Press in 2018. His article “‘We Do Not Care Particularly About the Skating Rinks’: African Americans Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Massachusetts” was awarded the Richards Prize by the Journal of the Civil War Era for best article published in 2015.

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