State Standards are Failing to Teach Reconstruction and Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle

Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, Reconstruction, teaching history

Ana Rosado is a historian of the 19th century and received her Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Her research interests include the history of Black families, kinship, friendship, and community in the era of emancipation. She currently lives and works in New York.

Gideon Cohn-Postar is a postdoctoral fellow with the Chabraja Center for Historical Studies at Northwestern University. He researches voting rights in the 19th century with an emphasis on how economic threats shaped political expression and election laws after the Civil War.

Mimi Eisen is a program specialist for the Zinn Education Project. She has an M.A. in History from Brown University, with a secondary focus in digital public humanities. Much of her work centers on questions of U.S. citizenship, law, and civil rights in the late 19th century.


In 2016, the National Park Service described Reconstruction as “one of the most complicated, poorly understood, and significant periods in American history.”1Kate Masur and Gregory Downs, “Introduction” in The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook ed. Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar (Fort Washington: Eastern National Publishing, 2016), 19.

Even as ongoing crises with obvious links to the Reconstruction era continue to reinforce its significance today, most people living in the United States know shockingly little about the policies, people, conflicts, and ideas that shaped Reconstruction and its aftermath. 

Reconstruction was a moment of profound hope and devastating loss. Four million formerly enslaved people gained freedom and made strong claims on political, economic, and social equality. However, this “new birth of freedom” for African Americans was met with a white supremacist backlash. With bullets, nooses, laws, and threats, politicians and vigilantes worked to overturn the radical promise of Reconstruction and end multiracial democracy in the South for a century. 

Historical connections to Reconstruction surround us today: the growing Movement for Black Lives, rising white supremacist violence, virulent voter suppression, multiracial movements to address policing and labor, political efforts to ban controversial topics from classrooms, and racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality rates. The attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, symbolized by a Confederate flag flying in the Capitol, failed to overturn the 2020 election results; in the 1870s, white supremacist terrorists throughout the South successfully defeated democracy and equality for more than a generation.

As these recent events have reinforced Reconstruction’s relevance, they have also heightened the need to interrogate why it remains so poorly understood. This report represents a comprehensive effort by the Zinn Education Project to understand Reconstruction’s place in state social studies standards across the United States, examine the nature and extent of the barriers to teaching effective Reconstruction history, and make focused recommendations for improvement. 

This report asks four fundamental questions:

  • Do state social studies educational standards for K–12 schools recommend or require students to learn about Reconstruction? 

  • Is the content that state standards recommend or require on Reconstruction historically accurate and reflective of modern scholarship?

  • What would an ideal set of historically accurate state standards on Reconstruction look like?

  • What are some efforts underway to give the Reconstruction era the time and perspective it deserves?

Read entire article at Zinn Education Project/Teach Reconstruction

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