Nine Decades Later, Critics of DuBois's "Black Reconstruction" Rehash Old Claims

tags: historiography, racism, African American history, labor history, W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction

Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All.

When he published “Black Reconstruction” in 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois challenged Americans to see the years following the Civil War as a counterpoint to the Jim Crow era in the 20th century. During Reconstruction, the nation took steps to ensure that Black Americans, many of them formerly enslaved, could exercise rights once available to White Americans only. As Black men voted and Black Americans remade Southern society, opposition surged. Reconstruction was a brief experiment, lasting less than 15 years. Still, Du Bois explained how formerly enslaved people were pivotal actors during that first attempt to build an interracial democracy. Suppression of those efforts, he argued, foretold the lynchings, disenfranchisement and segregation that troubled the Jim Crow South.

“Black Reconstruction,” published against a backdrop of violence and segregation, met with a vitriolic reception. White writers leveled sharp-tongued critiques. Black journalists assessed the work favorably but with reservations. Despite the early criticism, over time “Black Reconstruction” came to be recognized as a towering analysis of American culture and an important work of history. Nonetheless, the book’s contribution to the understanding of American racism is, nearly 90 years after its publication, still subject to stale objections that echo those heard when it first hit bookstore shelves.

The 2021 release of the Library of America’s edition of “Black Reconstruction,” edited by Eric Foner and Henry Louis Gates Jr., confirms the book’s place in the pantheon of great works of enduring influence. Historians today return to Du Bois’s study to understand how Reconstruction, its accomplishments and its disappointments grew out of the legacies of slavery and the divisions of the Civil War. Du Bois underscored the political agency of Black Americans, noting how, among other examples, enslaved people changed the course of the Civil War by stopping work on Southern plantations in what he called a “general strike.” Du Bois challenged historians to stop using history to justify the suppression of Black voting rights. The nation, he urged, needed historians “who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race.”

Today, “Black Reconstruction” is a must-read for scholars in the fields of history, literature, education, political theory, law and conflict studies. But it wasn’t always so. Immediately after its publication, the book was mostly disdained or simply ignored. In those years, Columbia University professor William Dunning and his followers dominated thinking on Reconstruction. This conservative school of thought turned out shoddy studies that labeled the Reconstruction era a “tragedy” that threatened white supremacy by elevating Black Americans to full citizenship. Echoing Dunning School sentiments, University of Chicago historian Avery Craven issued an unvarnished denouncement of Du Bois’s book in January 1936. Craven charged that Du Bois wrote “Black Reconstruction” out of a festering in his soul rather than from his graduate training at the University of Berlin and at Harvard, and his authorship of more than a dozen previous books. “It is, in large part,” Craven mocked, “only the expression of a Negro’s bitterness against the injustice of slavery and racial prejudice.”

Craven characterized “Black Reconstruction” as “history re-written,” not to laud the book’s contribution to the historiographic debates of the time but to malign it as an illegitimate analysis. Du Bois, he asserted, cherry-picked his evidence such that “source materials so essential to any rewriting of history have been completely ignored.” If Du Bois did not include the range of materials Craven expected, it was because, as a more sympathetic reviewer pointed out, he “had not the time, money, and opportunity requisite to permit him to go back to the original sources in all cases.” Du Bois himself openly conceded that he was a Black historian subjected to Jim Crow restrictions in the academy and in the archives.

When Du Bois did plumb the documentary record, he turned to evidence that Craven deemed out of bounds: “abolition propaganda and the biased statements of partisan politicians.” The result, Craven contended, was a “half-baked Marxian interpretation.” He concluded that the book presented a “badly distorted picture” and that Du Bois had overreached.


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