States Are Dropping the Ball On Reconstruction Education

A depiction of white terror in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1866, as white supremacists burned down Black churches, homes, and schools. Source: Tennessee Virtual Archive

The folks at the Zinn Education Project produced this report on the state of Reconstruction education in our country today. Spoiler alert: we’re not doing so well. “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.”

The report asks these 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?”
Teachers and students at a Freedmen’s School in New Bern, North Carolina, c. 1868. Source: National Museum of African American History & Culture

The report first goes into what Reconstruction was: “Reconstruction was a social, economic, and political revolution. The process began during the Civil War, as enslaved people broke their bonds, escaped to freedom, and joined the U.S. Army and Navy to complete the destruction of the Confederacy. Newly emancipated African Americans who sought to win a semblance of autonomy and self-determination guided the course of Reconstruction and pushed to expand the frontiers of civil and political equality. Yet, faced with Black political and economic advances, a white supremacist counterrevolution succeeded in destroying many of these fragile advances. White supremacists violently suppressed Black voting and sought to reinstitute the racial hierarchy in the South that emancipation had unsettled. In the South, Reconstruction is largely a story of Black bravery, activism, and grassroots advocacy undermined by political infighting, inconsistent white allies, and virulent white supremacist terrorism. Against difficult odds, many formerly enslaved people were able to carve out a semblance of economic and political independence, but many more were denied the opportunity to own land or freely negotiate work contracts.”

We’re told, “Black people organized to fulfill freedom’s promise. They struggled to set the terms of their own labor, advocated for state-funded public education, access to land, the right to vote, and the right to serve on juries. They participated in state constitutional and political conventions, built churches and mutual aid organizations, and ran for and held political office at every possible level of government. Black people also reconstituted their communities: searching for, and sometimes successfully reuniting with, family stolen away in slavery; formalizing marriages; and otherwise living with and near their loved ones. They nurtured these communities with joy and entertainment, gathering at concerts, picnics, and other recreational outings. They cultivated a flowering of Black culture through creative pursuits that included art, music, dance, and literature. Many white Southerners wanted to undo the progress of Reconstruction and reestablish the antebellum social order rooted in white social, political, and economic supremacy. There were everyday forms of terror and violence perpetrated by individuals who coerced, beat, raped, and murdered Black men and women. There were also collective forms of violence from white mobs and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, White Leagues, and the Knights of the White Camelia. Much of the violence was politically motivated and specifically targeted Republican voters, organizers, and politicians, and Black people who were prominent in their community. To give just one example, on election day in Mobile, Alabama, in November 1874, a white supremacist mob opened fire on Black voters when they attempted to approach the polls. One man was killed and four wounded. The ‘organized mob’ then rushed to the homes of prominent Black men, including religious leaders, with the goal of killing them ‘for the conspicuous part they had taken for the Republicans during the day.’ Those who made it out in time ‘slept out” in the woods to avoid the murderous mob until after election day.”

Continuing, “Black people resisted this violence and sometimes mounted armed resistance, but the combination of vigilante violence, state and federal refusal to defend Black rights, and widespread disenfranchisement was impossible to overcome. Many victims of pre-election threats and violence were forced to flee their homes, abandoning their hard-won economic freedom and political rights to preserve their very lives. Reconstruction, however, did not reshape just the Southern states. In the West, the legal and economic transformations of Reconstruction profoundly shaped the lives of Native peoples and immigrants from China, often for the worse. As the United States remade itself, Republicans centered a vision of an expanding U.S. empire rooted in the dispossession and domination of Native nations. The Civil War had been waged in large part over the future of the West, and while the triumphant Republican vision for the West did not include slavery, it also did not include Native people. The Homestead and Transcontinental Railroad Acts, passed during the war, provided additional impetus to the displacement and murder of Native peoples of the West. … At the level of federal law, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, often called the Reconstruction Amendments, fundamentally transformed the nature of citizenship and the powers of the federal government itself. They outlawed slavery, established birthright citizenship, demanded equal protection of the laws and due process of law for all people, and banned racial discrimination in the right to vote. The amendments explicitly gave Congress the power to enforce these principles. The Reconstruction era was, as historian Eric Foner put it, the nation’s second founding. The constitutional changes enacted during this era created a framework that, nearly a century later, Americans used to dismantle legalized white supremacy in the South. Yet, soon after their enactment, the Supreme Court interpreted the amendments extremely narrowly and Congress retreated from its commitment to using them to protect Black people and democracy itself from white supremacist terrorism.”

Portrait of the first Black U.S. congressmen, who all took office during Reconstruction and represented Southern constituents. Source: Library of Congress

The report says, “The temporary ascendancy of Black political power in many localities rested on both federal and local enforcement of these amendments. With federal officials unwilling or unable to enforce the new amendments (and the federal statutes associated with them), white Southerners denied African Americans the economic rights and resources required for tangible mobility and independence. They took back political power using violence, coercion, and fraud. The political and legal advances made by African Americans could not hold. The United States largely returned to a society governed by hierarchies that placed white men at the top. As political scientist Rogers Smith detailed, in the decades that followed the destruction of Reconstruction, reactionary white people encoded gender and racial hierarchies ‘in a staggering array of new laws governing naturalization, immigration deportation, voting rights, electoral institutions, judicial procedures, and economic rights.’ But, as Smith noted, white supremacists could erase the advances of Reconstruction ‘only partially.’ The Reconstruction Amendments remained part of the Constitution, eroded by obscene judicial interpretation and political neglect, but ready for reinvigoration in a new century. Black people’s collective memories of their economic and political power during Reconstruction, though forgotten and erased by most of white America, remained potent reminders to them of what mass political movements and grassroots organizing could accomplish. Present, too, in the collective memories of many Black people in the United States was the knowledge (and continued firsthand experience) of the violent lengths to which white supremacists would go in efforts to defend their unequal privileges.”

A depiction of a Black congregation in Washington, D.C., in 1876. Source: National Museum of African American History & Culture

The report next gets into the reasons why Reconstruction is so poorly misunderstood. “Most people in the United States know very little about Reconstruction. What they do know is often untrue. That’s not accidental. As the great scholar W. E. B. Du Bois said, ‘one cannot study Reconstruction without first frankly facing the facts of universal lying.’ The ‘Dunning School,’ based at Columbia University and influenced by the research of historian William A. Dunning, dominated white scholarship on Reconstruction for the majority of the 20th century. This school of thought portrayed Reconstruction as a period of intense political corruption where ‘ignorant’ Black people were manipulated by dishonest Northern ‘carpetbaggers,’ and Southern ‘scalawags.’ Dunning infused his writing with racist interpretations of the period under the guise of historical empiricism and objectivity. As such, Dunning and his students lent academic credibility to what were actually white supremacist distortions of the Reconstruction era. The Dunning School’s impact was profound and reached even into popular culture. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the racist 1915 film that depicted Black people as monstrous rapists and the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic organization created to ‘restore’ the South to former glory, was in part based on a Dunning School interpretation of Reconstruction. The film contained title cards with quotes from Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s book, A History of the American People, which made similar white supremacist observations and presented them as facts.”

We learn, “Efforts by Black scholars to condemn the Dunning School, such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s seminal text Black Reconstruction in America, were largely ignored by white scholars until the Black freedom movement of the 20th century created a climate in which professional historians took another look at the period. In the 1950s and ’60s, academic historians began debunking the Dunning myths about Reconstruction. Historians have since thoroughly discredited the racist scholarship of the Dunning School and reframed Reconstruction as a time of radical social and political progress that was halted and rolled back by white supremacist violence. They have also drawn from Du Bois’s class analysis of white supremacy, acknowledging how white elites deliberately worked to keep Black and white working-class people from uniting across racial lines and, overall, sought to disempower U.S. laborers. Since the 1960s, historians have enriched and complicated our understanding of Reconstruction in countless ways. This process of discovery and reinterpretation continues today, yet few of these insights have made their way into state social studies standards. What most students learn in school about Reconstruction is decades behind the scholarly consensus. Historian Eric Foner said, ‘for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding, which, judging from references to Reconstruction in recent newspaper articles, films, popular books, and in public monuments across the country, still bears the mark of the old Dunning School.’ Far too many people in the United States still do not understand the history of Reconstruction. Based on our analysis of state educational standards, our national survey of teachers, and our assessment of a sample of district curricula across the country, incorrect and often racist approaches to teaching Reconstruction still define the standards and curricula of many states.”

From a lithograph entitled, “The Shackle Broken—By the Genius of Freedom”: a vignette commemorating an 1874 speech on civil rights delivered by Congressman Robert B. Elliott of South Carolina. Source: National Portrait Gallery

We next see what Reconstruction’s relevance is for us today. “Reconstruction touches nearly every element of modern U.S. life. The legacies of the era shape U.S. government, politics, economics, settlement patterns, and much else besides. In the past year in particular, the legacies of Reconstruction have assumed newfound significance in the ongoing battles over the nature of U.S. democracy, police brutality, and the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Reconstruction offers critical context for the racial disparities in COVID-19-related fatalities. As historian Jim Downs explained, the high death toll in the United States among Black people from COVID echoes the destructive outbreak of smallpox among formerly enslaved people during the Civil War that killed uncounted thousands. Notably, smallpox continued to ravage Black communities for decades, long after white authorities had declared the epidemic at an end. During the nationwide racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, many activists described struggling against the twin epidemics of COVID and white supremacy, a formulation that would have been readily recognized by newly freed people struggling against smallpox and the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. One of the most notable connections between our current political moment and Reconstruction is the use of Reconstruction-era laws to respond to white supremacist attacks on U.S. democracy. In February 2021, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) filed a federal lawsuit against former Pres. Donald Trump and others who encouraged or participated in the January 6 assault on the Capitol for violating the Enforcement Act of 1871. Congress passed this law, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, to counter the violent attacks on multiracial Reconstruction governments and protect Black people from white supremacist terrorism during Reconstruction. In June 2021, a coalition of civil rights organizations also invoked the Ku Klux Klan Act in lawsuits against Trump supporters who attacked a Democratic campaign bus in Texas, along with the law enforcement officials who allowed the attack to take place.”

We also see, “As a growing conservative movement in state legislatures and school boards has sought to restrict education that foregrounds the history of white supremacy, the work to change the narrative and understand the relevance of this era becomes both harder and more important. Republican lawmakers in more than two dozen states have introduced legislation to ‘restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.’ Reconstruction, because of its centrality to the history of race in the United States, could be particularly affected by bans on teaching ‘controversial’ topics. Discouraging or banning the teaching of racism, inequality, and white supremacy will make it impossible for students to learn the history of Reconstruction — and its legacies in the contemporary moment. The stakes could not be higher. As one middle school history teacher in Louisiana explained, ‘It’s impossible to understand the rest of the history of the United States without an understanding of Reconstruction.’ “

From a lithograph entitled, “The Shackle Broken—By the Genius of Freedom”: a vignette celebrating African Americans’ rights to fair labor and land ownership. Source: National Portrait Gallery

The report’s authors then tell us about their methodology and focus: “Our findings, explained in more detail below, indicate that schools are failing to teach a sufficiently complex and comprehensive history of Reconstruction. We analyzed state standards, district-level social studies curricula, course requirements, frameworks, and support for teachers in each state from 2019 to 2021. We also surveyed elementary, middle, and high school teachers across the country and followed up with individual teachers and education professionals to learn more about how they approach the topic. Each state summary includes: 

  • “A vignette of Reconstruction history in that state.
  • “A brief summary and analysis of the relevant state standards on Reconstruction at each grade level it is taught. 
    • “We assess coverage of Reconstruction in each state’s standards as: nonexistent, partial, or extensive.
    • “We assess content and grade standards on a scale of 1–10 in applying the Zinn Education Project standards rubric, described below. 
  • “In ‘local control’ states where state educational standards are broad and districts have a great deal of control over what topics are covered, we also analyzed the social studies curricula of one to three school districts. These “Local Snapshots” are not intended as a critical judgment of the chosen districts’ approach to Reconstruction. They were chosen largely at random and are not factored into the grade the state standards receive. They are intended merely to provide a snapshot into how Reconstruction is covered in district curricula when states do not mandate specific content standards.
  • “Our analysis of teacher responses from the state to a survey gathering classroom experiences teaching Reconstruction.
  • “Our overall assessment of the state’s educational standards on Reconstruction.

Note: Our analysis in this report is limited to Reconstruction, but our review of state standards yielded troubling framings for additional areas and eras of U.S. history. Language such as ‘unsettled territories’ and ‘Westward expansion,’ among others, suggest endorsements of imperialism and other reprehensible policies and ideologies. ‘Unsettled territories,’ for instance, disregards the Indigenous people who had already settled and built communities in these regions and excuses white settler invasions and occupations. We largely refrain from addressing these terms as cited directly in the report, given its focus, but do not condone their usage and implications.”

Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett, 1952. Source: Art Institute Chicago

The report then gets into recommended standards, key findings, and recommendations before going into its state-by-state analysis.

Emancipation print from 1863 depicting a series of scenes contrasting African American life before and after slavery.
 Library Company of Philadelphia

This Time Magazine article about the report tells us, “In social studies standards for 45 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, discussion of Reconstruction is ‘partial’ or ‘non-existent,’ according to historians who reviewed how the period is discussed in K-12 social studies standards for public schools nationwide. In a report produced by the education nonprofit Zinn Education Project, the study’s authors say they are concerned that American children will grow up to be uninformed about a critical period of history that helps explain why full racial equality remains unfulfilled today. (The Zinn Education Project, a website with free, downloadable lessons and articles about history topics, is an outgrowth of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United States, which helped popularize an approach to studying history from the bottom-up and incorporating the often overlooked histories of people of color.)”

According to the article, “For the Zinn Education Project’s report, historians Ana Rosado, Gideon Cohn-Postar, and Mimi Eisen evaluated state social studies standards by looking for their inclusion of noteworthy moments of the Reconstruction period. Their criteria ranged from instruction on local governments denying Black people the ability to own land to violence carried out by white supremacist terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. (Among the most concerning phrasing the researchers found was in Georgia’s 8th grade social studies standards, which expect students to ‘compare and contrast the goals and outcomes of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Ku Klux Klan,’ suggesting a moral equivalency between the two.) They were looking for mentions of the Freedmen’s Bureau, formed to provide aid to the 4 million formerly enslaved people after the Civil War; for stories of Black people mobilizing for political participation and the establishment of clubs like the Union Leagues; for discussion of Northern industrialists’ power in the South and Black struggles for land ownership and labor rights. And they wanted to see the legacies of Reconstruction addressed, such as Reconstruction-era schools as a basis for public education today to the more sobering, like Jim Crow-era racism’s legacy in policing and prisons and disparities in health, wealth, and housing. Overall, the researchers found K-12 social standards didn’t cover most of these topics. In interviews, teachers said they had barely learned about the period themselves and would need more professional development to feel comfortable teaching it in-depth. Educators were also concerned that the recent spate of state laws prohibiting the teaching of ‘divisive concepts’ will limit instruction on the full history of racism in America. ‘The message is more that the education system in this country across the country is failing to teach Reconstruction sufficiently and that everyone can do better,’ says Eisen. ‘We’re hoping to encourage readers to advocate for more attention to Reconstruction and K-12 curriculum in the classroom.’ While many states expected students to know why Reconstruction failed, the report found less of a focus on the era’s successes—or efforts to help ensure Black Americans could be full citizens. The scholars say viewing Reconstruction only by its failure is problematic. The researchers also found the standards tended to focus on events on the federal level, presidential and congressional actions, which can skew teaching towards the actions of white people at the expense of stories of Black Americans’ resilience, whether at the community level—with the building of mutual aid organizations and church communities—or with regards to individuals like Octavius Catto of Philadelphia who fought against segregation in baseball and was shot to death in 1871 after helping organize voter registration drives.”

In this article from “Education Week,” we find, “The report, written by a team of doctoral candidates and history researchers with an advisory panel of nearly 20 historians and social scientists, examines state standards and examples of district-level curricula. It also includes responses from a teacher survey on teaching Reconstruction. This analysis takes a comprehensive look at how states handle the subject, offering state-by-state breakdowns as well as overall findings. The organization, which takes historian Howard Zinn’s approach to teaching the past from the perspective of people whose stories have been marginalized or ignored in dominant narratives, also hopes it will serve as a call to action. ‘If states had better standards about Reconstruction that emphasized Black agency and that revealed the white supremacist backlash that took down Reconstruction, that would provide more support for educators who want to teach the truth about this incredible time period that held immense promise,’ said Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher in Seattle and an organizer with the Zinn Education Project. ‘Instead, what’s often taught around the country is that Reconstruction failed. A lot of textbooks and state standards ask students to analyze the failure of Reconstruction, without pointing out that it didn’t just fail, it was attacked.’ “

This article tells us, “The report finds that many standards don’t provide clear and consistent definitions of what Reconstruction was. Only one state—Massachusetts—mentions white supremacy as a cause of the backlash to the expansion of civil rights and Black political and economic power. Just as some instructional materials on the Civil War still promote lost-cause narratives that cast the Confederacy in a positive light, some of the state standards that address Reconstruction promote skewed historical frameworks. More than 15 states ask students to evaluate whether Reconstruction was a success or a failure, a framing that the authors say casts the freedom and enfranchisement of formerly enslaved people as a ‘reckless’ and ill-advised experiment. ‘For most of the 20th century, white supremacists often cited ‘failure’ as an overarching inevitability of Reconstruction and a reason to deny Black people full citizenship in the decades that followed,’ the report reads. And most states focus exclusively on Reconstruction’s impact in the South, even though the expansion of voting rights and the prevalence of white mob violence had impacts outside of the Southern states.”

It also tells us, “The report also argues that states take too much of a ‘top-down’ approach to teaching the era, focusing more on politics and policies than the grassroots organizing or accomplishments of Black Americans. ‘This is an erstwhile problem in the way that we present history of all ages,’ said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Zimmerman, who was not involved in the writing of the report, said he agreed with the conclusion that Reconstruction is often poorly taught and that many lessons are still influenced by narratives rooted in white supremacy. The omission of social history in Reconstruction is especially problematic, he said, because it disproportionately minimizes Black experience and agency in the era. It also obscures the reality of widespread extralegal violence, he said. Even as the report calls for different state standards on Reconstruction, its authors remain ambivalent about the institution of state standards as a whole, and their connection to standardized testing. ‘The [Zinn Education Project is] very much on the left, and standards have been coded as a conservative thing. So the report doesn’t want to [deal] with that,’ Zimmerman said. But in pointing out the failures in state standards, he argued, the report underscores their importance in setting instructional agendas. In order to have a standard of accuracy and rigor for teaching Reconstruction, ‘you need to have standards on teaching Reconstruction,’ Zimmerman said.”

It continues, “Outside of the content concerns raised, the report also identifies one major logistical challenge to teaching Reconstruction: It generally falls at the very end, or the very beginning, of a school year. Eighth grade courses generally cover the first ‘half’ of U.S. History, from colonial America through to the end of the Civil War. Ninth grade courses pick up from there. Reconstruction, teachers said in the Zinn survey, can sometimes get lost in that transition. This was the case for Seth Billingsley, an 8th and 9th grade U.S. History teacher in Baltimore, who was quoted in the report. In Maryland, 8th grade standards include Reconstruction at the end of the year. ‘I’ll be completely honest, I did not get to it at all [last year], because the virtual learning environment made it really difficult,’ he said, in an interview with Education Week. With his 9th graders this fall, he started the school year with Reconstruction. He and his students talked about what freedom meant to formerly enslaved people, that some of the promises of Reconstruction were fulfilled, and that there were then attempts to limit those new freedoms in the form of Black Codes, forced labor of prisoners, and the rise of Jim Crow laws. Billingsley likes the district curriculum that Baltimore provides on Reconstruction, and has used pieces of it in his classes—like a lesson in which students analyze the rise of Jim Crow laws alongside a passage from ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. He’s tried to get students thinking about ‘echoes of this history in our current society,’ he said.”

According to “Education Week,” “That’s one of the recommendations put forth in the Zinn Education report: addressing the legacies of Reconstruction today. The document comes with a host of other suggestions for states and districts, like including clear definitions in standards, emphasizing actions taken by African Americans, requiring students to study the Freedmen’s Bureau, explicitly calling out white supremacy, and adjusting timelines so that Reconstruction doesn’t fall into the gap between grades. Understanding Reconstruction is especially important in this current political climate, Hagopian said, in which he sees echoes of the battles fought during the era. ‘You can’t understand the riots and insurrection and attacks on the Capitol on January 6th without understanding where white supremacist organizing came from,’ he said. ‘When you see people carrying the Confederate flag through our nation’s Capitol, you have to understand how the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the Civil War was a reaction to the progress that was happening in Reconstruction.’ But many parents and politicians don’t want children taught that there is a through line between those two events, or more broadly, that the effects of slavery and Reconstruction have any relevance in the present day. In both Louisiana and Mississippi, battles are ongoing over revisions to state social studies standards that would change how the documents address historical oppression and discrimination. Members of the public have commented on draft standards in Louisiana, claiming that more attention to these issues would sow division among students. Teachers may face less pushback—and foster more historical inquiry—if they provide students with information and context and then focus on what conclusions students can draw themselves, Zimmerman said. ‘For the report to say, connect the threat on civil rights during Reconstruction to attacks on civil rights today, I think this should be phrased in terms of a question and not an assertion.’ “

My friend and blogging colleague Pat Young has been all over this and posted on it at his blog, “The Reconstruction Era.” You can read the post here.

Pat also covers how Martin Luther King, Jr. discussed the distortion of Reconstruction history here.

3 comments

  1. patyoungcarecen2019 · · Reply

    Thanks for covering this Al.

  2. Robert Davenport · · Reply

    “A lot of textbooks and state standards ask students to analyze the failure of Reconstruction, without pointing out that it didn’t just fail, it was attacked.” So it is not enough to have students answer questions they must be told who or what to blame; and the blame goes to the “white supremacists”

    1. That would be what we call accurate history.

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