Juneteenth, Public Memory, and Teaching Reconstruction Through an International Perspective

Juneteenth, Public Memory, and Teaching Reconstruction Through an International Perspective

A few weeks ago, the United States celebrated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time. The bill recognizing the emancipation celebration passed the Senate and House and was signed into law by President Joe Biden in a matter of days, just in time for Americans to celebrate this commemoration of the emancipation of enslaved Americans. This rapid transformation of Juneteenth from an African-American celebration to a federal holiday sparked widespread interest in the history of Juneteenth, and therefore in the history of emancipation. Juneteenth, of course, celebrates the emancipation of enslaved Texans in June of 1865, a full two and half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and half a year before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. As such, it inherently reveals the complicated, piece-meal process of emancipation throughout the US, and, in doing so, points to the equally complex nature of the larger Reconstruction period.

Mural of Gordon Granger signing the Special orders with African American soldiers looking on
Reginald C. Adams’s “Absolute Equality” mural in Galveston, Texas, 2021.

Public interest in Reconstruction has grown recently due to the ongoing sesquicentennial celebrations. The declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday fits this new interest in historical legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction and coincides with other major debates over Confederate memorialization and statues. Discussions of reparations, as well as commemoration of events such as the centennial of the Tulsa Race Riot, are forcing national recognition that Reconstruction, while succeeding in emancipating enslaved Americans, did not secure full and lasting equality for freedpeople. Even the impeachments of Donald Trump drew comparisons to and interest in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction, a pivotal event facilitating the gains of freedpeople.

Such broader interest in Reconstruction presents historians with opportunities to highlight the period in our classrooms, and to teach the period in a way that will help our students make sense out the challenges, opportunities, successes, and failures of Reconstruction. Despite this opportunity, however, educators face varied challenges in teaching Reconstruction, including the recent efforts to limit discussion of race in the classroom through bans on critical race theory, as well as the ongoing popularity of the Lost Cause narrative of Reconstruction. Especially for educators in the South, many students arrive in history classrooms having been taught or having absorbed the idea that Reconstruction was a harmful era of punitive destruction of the South. Implicit in this Lost Cause vision of Reconstruction is the idea that Reconstruction was designed to punish white southerners for secession and the Civil War, and that that punishment was unwarranted, unreasonable, and even cruel. Of course, when Reconstruction is wrongly cast as a harmful, punitive period, the positive and necessary gains of emancipation get lost, further complicating understanding.

As a scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction through a transnational lens, I have found that positioning Reconstruction within a larger world historical context helps students reconsider any preconceived notions they have about Reconstruction, and facilitates comprehension of this complex period. Internationalizing Reconstruction in the classroom also helps reclaim the positive, emancipatory legacy of Reconstruction that Juneteenth now celebrates. To assist students in re-contextualizing Reconstruction, I use an exercise that I loosely call “spectrums of possibility” (for lack of a better title) that asks students to place the key issues of Reconstruction in international and historical context. The exercise can easily be adjusted to meet the needs of students of various levels, and I have found it effective in encouraging critical thinking at all levels, as well as in advancing content knowledge.

In this exercise, I ask students to brainstorm ranges of possibilities for how the two key issues of Reconstruction, namely dealing with the Confederacy and emancipating the enslaved, could have played out, using international and historical examples to build our “spectrums of possibility.” I start the exercise by asking students to temporarily forget everything they know about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Instead, I encourage them to think broadly about what they know about the history of other times and places, as well as to consider hypothetical possibilities. My goal is to help them envision all possibilities that could have theoretically been used after the defeat of the Confederacy, regardless of whether they were ever realistic options for this specific case.

We generally begin with the spectrum for possibilities for how the US could have dealt with the Confederacy after its defeat. For this spectrum, I encourage students to consider how victors in other wars dealt with the defeated in other historical cases. Generally, the end-points we establish for this spectrum are variants of “punishment” and “forgiveness.”

The punishment end of this spectrum tends to be easiest for students to brainstorm, and therefore makes a good starting point. Drawing on students’ knowledge of events such as the world wars, the European Revolutions of 1848, and the American Revolution, we highlight punitive possibilities such as monetary reparations, demilitarization, confiscation of property, arrest and imprisonment, and exile. In order to eventually help my students contextualize citizenship and rights during Reconstruction, I also encourage them to think about examples of conquest and colonization that stripped the defeated people of equality and rights.

The forgiveness end of the spectrum tends to build less from actual historical examples and more from hypotheticals. Students readily suggest that forgiveness might take the form of helping the defeated party rebuild, for example. Legal amnesty, of course, is another key element of the forgiveness end of the spectrum. Often, students best understand forgiveness as the absence of the items we identified for punishment; so, instead of conquering and restricting rights, for example, the victor might treat the defeated party as an equal, with full rights granted to its citizens.

Once students have built the spectrum of possibilities ranging from punishment to forgiveness, I refer back to our spectrum throughout the following lesson on Reconstruction. After presenting Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction, and then the Republican Congress’s plan for Reconstruction, for example, I ask students where that plan falls on our spectrum. This exercise is particularly effective in combatting the Lost Cause idea that Reconstruction was designed to punish former Confederates, as students readily see the absence of many of the punishments we identified, as well as the centrality of elements of forgiveness such as amnesty. Placing various plans for Reconstruction on the spectrum is also useful in helping students compare and contrast the various plans and better understand the differences and nuances.

While the range of possibilities for how a victorious party can deal with a defeated party is helpful in assisting students in re-think political Reconstruction, the spectrum of emancipation helps students center emancipation as a key part of this period. Here, the two ends of our spectrum are helping the freedpeople or helping the enslaver, or, “pro-freedpeople” and “pro-enslaver.” Because students tend to be less familiar with historical examples of emancipation, I generally encourage students to think hypothetically about what a pro-freedpeople emancipation and pro-enslaver emancipation might involve, and then provide examples myself.

For the pro-freedpeople emancipation, we discuss the necessity of rights, economic opportunity, education, and meaningful control of daily life. We also discuss what each of these elements required in order to become reality, identifying, for example, the necessity of protection for civil rights, and of land ownership for economic opportunity in an agricultural society. I also urge students to consider the idea of reparations, particularly in the form of back wages, or of ownership of the land that the enslaved had rendered profitable. Examples can include Reconstruction measures such as Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, the Freedman’s Bureau, the churches and schools that freedpeople established, and African-Americans’ robust participation in political life during Reconstruction.

The pro-enslaver end of the spectrum tends to initially be more abstract for students. I start by asking students what they think the main desire of former enslavers would be; here, students generally identify former enslavers’ desire for continued control of freedpeople’s labor. From here, we discuss how former enslavers would want full control of the political system, with no rights for freedpeople, as this would enable them to assert control of the labor. We also discuss the possibility of reparations paid to enslavers for their loss of property. Emancipation in other Atlantic slave societies provides the examples of reparations to enslavers and of control of labor through apprenticeship systems.

As with the spectrum for managing defeat, we refer back to the spectrum for emancipation throughout the subsequent lesson, with students once again placing each plan for Reconstruction in the appropriate place on the spectrum. Continuing to discuss the reality of emancipation, contrasted with the range of possibilities for emancipation, aids students in understanding the critical importance of emancipation to Reconstruction, as well as the ultimate failures to sustain a broad, robust freedom for freedpeople as Reconstruction collapsed. Reclaiming the emancipationist legacy of Reconstruction also counters the Lost Cause narrative of the period and recasts it in a more positive light.

Americans tend to think of the Civil War, and therefore Reconstruction, as fundamentally domestic issues – the war of brother versus brother. The Civil War is far from the only war in world history, however, and world history abounds with examples of how the victorious party in a war can shape the post-war status through its treatment of the defeated party. Likewise, the US was not alone in ending Atlantic World slavery, providing examples of other possibilities for how emancipation could have played out. Asking students to consider the other possibilities for the key issues of Reconstruction helps them better contextualize and understand this period. When placed in a world historical perspective, Reconstruction looks very different, meaning that leading students in building spectrums of possibility for Reconstruction is an effective method of helping students understand the complex nature and legacy of this period. With growing interest in Reconstruction, as illustrated by the new Juneteenth holiday, such complex understanding of Reconstruction will prepare our students well to participate in our national discourse.

Ann Tucker

Ann L. Tucker is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia. She earned her PhD at the University of South Carolina, and is the author of Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (UVa Press, 2020). She studies the US South and Civil War Era through a transnational perspective. You can find her at her website, annltucker.com, or on twitter @annltucker.

2 Replies to “Juneteenth, Public Memory, and Teaching Reconstruction Through an International Perspective”

  1. Thank you for an experience description of how to turn the newest national holiday a thoughtful learning experience for students. By viewing this period from an international perspective, students really come away with a much better understanding of how the Civil War and Reconstruction fit into the larger sphere of global events. As an historian of this period, I am always looking for new methods and ideas to reach young people so they better understand who they are and thus, who we are and how we are all interconnected.

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