Historian Eric Foner Disputes ‘Fake History’ Of Reconstruction EraHistorians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, Eric Foner
Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, Eric Foner said he was taught that the Reconstruction era, which followed the U.S. Civil War, was a failure. “Carpetbaggers” from the North aided by opportunistic Southern “scalawags” came to take advantage of the recently defeated South. These two groups manipulated recently freed Black slaves leading to an era rife with corruption and incompetency.
Foner has dedicated much his career to correcting this mistaken notion Reconstruction was a failure through his work as an academic as well as by authoring numerous books. A professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, Foner is this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Lifetime Achievement winner. This Cleveland-based literary prize is awarded to authors who address racism and diversity through their work.
“This idea of Reconstruction as really the lowest point in the history of American democracy, because African-Americans were suddenly given civil and political rights, that is a total myth. That's what we might call ‘fake history’ today,” he said. “That view was really part of the ideology or the legitimation of the Jim Crow South. It was created by Southern historians or Northerners who adopted that view. It was widely shared in the famous movie ‘Birth of a Nation,’ a little bit of it in ‘Gone With the Wind’ and bestsellers, etcetera,” Foner said.
Jim Crow laws allowed for the segregation of the races, discriminatory hiring practices and made it for difficult for Blacks to vote.
“If you gave Black Americans the right to vote again, you'd have all the horrors of Reconstruction again. In other words, it was part of the legitimation of the second-class citizenship of African-Americans for the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. This is important. It shows why history matters, because it can give you lessons about the present. The lesson of this view of Reconstruction was basically that Black people are inferior and should not be given the basic rights of American citizenship. It was important to overturn that view of history, and it was overturned by me and by many other scholars, as a result of the civil rights era. You could no longer hold those views once the edifice of Jim Crow was destroyed in the 1960s,” Foner said.