Five myths about Reconstruction

tags: Civil War, Reconstruction

James W. Loewen, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”

The United States is entering the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War when African Americans briefly enjoyed full civil and political rights. African Americans — 200,000 of them — had fought in that war, which made it hard to deny them equal rights. Unlike with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, however, few historic places tell us what happened during Reconstruction. They could: Every plantation home had a Reconstruction history, often fascinating, but these manors remain frozen in time around 1859. They tell a tale of elegance and power, and Reconstruction was the era when that power was challenged. Moreover, it is still true, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it in “Black Reconstruction” 80 years ago, that “one cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying.” Here are five common fallacies that Americans still tell themselves about this formative period.

1. Reconstruction was a failure.

This view came to dominate public thinking from 1890 until about 1940, when world events and the Great Migration began to reshape the country’s perception of race and racism. During this period, known by historians as the nadir of race relations, white Americans became in­cred­ibly racist. Communities across the North became “sundown towns” that banned African Americans (and sometimes Jews and others) after dark. Beginning with Mississippi in 1890, every Southern state instituted literacy tests and poll taxes to effectively remove African Americans from the citizenship they were supposed to have been guaranteed by the 14th Amendment . Reconstruction was portrayed during this era as a terrible time, especially for whites but really for everyone, a failure of a government propped up only by federal bayonets. “No people were ever so cruelly subjected to the rule of ignorant, vicious and criminal classes as were the southern people in the awful days of reconstruction,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune proclaimed in 1901. 

Some people today even think that Reconstruction was an effort to physically rebuild the South, rather than to aid its political reentry into the Union. In 2013, for example, the Smithsonian American Art Museum mounted a huge exhibit, “The Civil War and American Art.” “Reconstruction,” the museum claimed, “began as a well-intended effort to repair the obvious damage across the South as each state reentered the Union.” The curator said that the rebuilding “soon faltered, beset by corrupt politicians, well-meaning but inept administrations, speculators, and very little centralized management.” 

On the contrary, former Confederates saw Reconstruction as a problem precisely because it was succeeding. New Republican state administrations passed popular measures such as homestead exemption laws that abated taxes on residences, making it harder for people to lose their homes. They also repaired roads and bridges and built new schools and hospitals. Soon, Republicans were drawing 20 percent and even 40 percent of the white vote and almost all the black vote. Democrats grew desperate. After abortive attempts to win black votes, they resorted to intimidation and violence. These tactics were central to the restoration of white Democratic rule across the South by 1877. And thus Reconstruction ended, but not because it failed. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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