To understand the 2015 massacre of nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina at the hands of a white supremacist — or to begin unpacking the long history and continued terror of Black people at the hands of whites, we must understand the history of America. Often, the antebellum period, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement are referenced. However, in his new four-hour PBS series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. argues that much of the racial turmoil, violence, and inequities in this country stem from the collapse of the Reconstruction era.
Ahead of the series premiere, Professor Gates hosted an evening at the New York Historical Society where he discussed Reconstruction, why it was vital to unpack this time period, and what it all means for us now. Shadow And Act was on hand for his keynote address.
“Between 1865 and 1877, Black people experienced more freedom and rights than at any other time in American history,” Gates explained. “It’s the embodiment of [Abraham] Lincoln’s new birth of freedom, from the Gettysburg Address or what scholars later have called America’s second founding. But most schools don’t teach much about Reconstruction. They’re skipping from [General Robert E.] Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to Rosa Parks, Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], and the civil rights movement.”
If you think about the ten year period that was Reconstruction— it seems nearly unfathomable. Black people owned land and were opening businesses. Black men were voted into various branches of the government, and some Black men had the right to vote. So, how did we go from this vision of a new America to Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and the rampant white supremacy of the 21st century?
“As Dr. W.E.B. DuBois said, ‘The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,'” Dr. Gates reflected. “I think about a speech that Dr. King delivered just about a month before he was killed. He focused on the significance of W.E.B. Du Bois’ magisterial study of Reconstruction, Black Reconstruction, published in 1935. He said, ‘The Reconstruction was a period in which Black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil and ignorant, then their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods, and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths.'”
Perhaps the worst aspect of Reconstruction was not its eventual failure, but instead, that we know very little about it at all. White people have been allowed to erase the facts and rewrite history. Even Dr. Gates was shocked by some of the details that he uncovered.
“Reconstruction has been lost to history,” he revealed. “Understanding Reconstruction and its rollback is pivotal to understanding the history of race relations in this country. Even Black people don’t know that much about Reconstruction. I did Chris Rock’s family tree. His great, great grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingling, was elected to the South Carolina legislature in 1872, and he had absolutely no idea. And he looked at me, and he said, had he known that it would’ve changed the course of his life because he went to his mother once in elementary school and said he wanted to be a politician. And his mother said, there was no future for a Black man in politics. But it was in his own family tree and he had no idea.”
What Professor Gates aimed to do with Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, was not merely provide an overview of the period, but to truly highlight some of the more astounding facts that were born out of the time. “Black men could only vote in the North in the five New England states plus New York if you had $250 worth of property, ” he emphasized. “Which is why we ultimately needed the 15th Amendment in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The right to vote led to tremendous grassroots ferment among Black men and women in 1867, which we think of as the first Freedom Summer. Over 80% of Black men in the former Confederate states registered to vote. Think about it: in 1860, 90% of our people were enslaved and 99.9% of them were illiterate. And in 1867, 80% of the male segment of the formerly enslaved population registered to vote. That’s incredible.”
As a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 —Black men affected the Presidential election of that same year. “Five hundred thousand of them cast their votes for Ulysses S. Grant, and Grant only won the popular vote by 300,000 votes,” Gates stressed. “About 2,000 Black officeholders were elected to every level of government, and by 1901 there had been a total of 20 Black representatives and two senators elected to the United States Congress. At the same time, African Americans built the Black community in freedom; reuniting families through ads in newspapers, building churches, and schools. The[y] also built the South’s first state-funded public school systems, and founded colleges such as Howard and Shaw and the other Historically Black Universities.”
Unfortunately, the backlash to the gains and progress of the previously enslaved people in the post-Civil War era was swift and devastating. “The rollback of Reconstruction lasted far longer than Reconstruction itself,” Gates said. “It continues to this day. This is why the history of Reconstruction matters, because the problems that emerged during Reconstruction have never been resolved. One lesson, painfully evident, is that achievements thought permanent can so quickly be overturned and rights can never be taken for granted. We’re certainly seeing this today.”
Reconstruction: America After the Civil War airs Tuesday, April 9 and April 16, 2019, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET on PBS.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide