One of the most common questions teachers ask at the end of a unit on the Reconstruction era is “Was Reconstruction a success or a failure?” And it’s no accident.
State and school district standards across the country ask students to, in the words of one Texas state standard, “describe and analyze the successes and failures of Reconstruction.” Textbooks and curriculum follow suit. In their “Topic Closer” on Reconstruction, U.S. History Interactive, published by Savvas Learning Company — formerly Pearson K12 Learning, asks students to write on what they have learned about the “successes and failures” of “Reconstruction measures.”
However, the debate about the “successes and failures” of Reconstruction was framed by the racist and discredited Dunning School. This group of historians argued that Reconstruction “failed” due to the faults of Black people. As Dunning School historian William Watson Davis wrote in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, “The attempt to found a commonwealth government upon the votes of an ignorant negro electorate proved a failure. It was an injustice to blacks and whites.”
William Dunning, a white professor at Columbia University in the early 1900s, taught this false and racist narrative — that formerly enslaved people were incapable of self-government. Dunning trained a generation of historians like Davis who popularized this depiction, culminating in the release of the major motion picture Birth of a Nation in 1915. Birth of a Nation portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the protectors of a Southern society that had been devastated by “Negro rule.” The three-hour movie was propelled into the national limelight when President Woodrow Wilson held a screening in the White House.
The Dunning School interpretation of Reconstruction remained the dominant portrayal of the era until the Civil Rights Movement forced a reexamination of Black history in the 1960s. Yet despite decades of new scholarship on Reconstruction, K–12 curriculum is still too often stuck in a framework shaped by the Dunning School. As the Zinn Education Project report on Reconstruction state standards argues:
The “successes and failures” framing often neglects to ask “for whom?” and encourages inaccurate and white supremacist Reconstruction education today. It undercuts the era’s on-the-ground movements, disconnecting the actions of people from the consequences of history. It belies the radical possibilities, unparalleled civil rights progress, and devastating white supremacist terror that are all so characteristic of Reconstruction. It assumes a sense of passivity, often asking students to consider only elites or vague monolithic entities like entire states or bodies of government as primary actors building toward inevitable outcomes. In so doing, this framing separates the genuine achievements of Reconstruction from the coalitions of Black people who made them possible and the racist dismantlers who deliberately rolled them back.
A Better Question: Who Killed Reconstruction?
For several years, I’ve been ending my unit on Reconstruction with a better question: “Who — and/or what — Killed Reconstruction?” Most textbook accounts point the finger exclusively at the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist terrorists who violently attacked Black people and their allies throughout the South. With my Rethinking Schools colleagues Bill Bigelow and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, I co-wrote a trial role play that encourages students to take a broader view of Reconstruction’s demise looking at the role of the major political parties and their wealthy backers, the racism of poor white people, and the systems of white supremacy and capitalism.
The trial begins from the premise that the death of Reconstruction was a terrible crime with disastrous consequences for the United States and the world. Much of my unit on Reconstruction focuses on the real possibility after the Civil War of reconstructing the United States based on equality and justice. Thanks to the efforts of Black organizers and their anti-racist allies, Congress passed the 14th and 15th Amendments and a Military Reconstruction Act to secure Black civil and political rights in the South. Black voter registration and turnout skyrocketed and more than 1,500 Black officeholders, many formerly enslaved, came to power in the South. The newly elected Black officials, along with many poor whites, gave meaning to the phrase government of the people by creating new public school systems and increasing funds for social services. Inspired by the Black freedom struggle, women’s and workers’ rights activists pushed for further reforms.
But starting in the 1870s the tide began to turn. Across the South, widespread violence, intimidation, and fraud led to the return of all-white governments. All poor people, but especially Blacks, were disenfranchised across the South as literacy tests, poll taxes, and terrorism prevented people from exercising their right to vote. By 1904, only 29 percent of adult males of any race voted in the South, and not a single Black legislator remained.
This history is crucial background that students need before starting the Who Killed Reconstruction? trial. In any trial role play, students need to appreciate the injustice of the crime that has been committed. The more background knowledge students can pull into the trial, the stronger the lesson will be.
I’ve run the trial in several schools, but most recently with my students at Lincoln High School in the midst of the pandemic. Lincoln is a diverse Title I neighborhood school in Northeast Philadelphia that serves a large English language learner and special education population. Last year, my students were dealing with trauma brought on from the pandemic, from the loss of jobs to the loss of loved ones. The move to online schooling meant that the classroom was replaced by their home where some were taking care of younger siblings, crowded in a room with other family members, or in a bedroom full of distractions. Despite this, I was encouraged by how many students engaged deeply with the Who Killed Reconstruction? trial — which came in the third quarter when many students were feeling burnt out with virtual school.
Beginning the Trial
I started the lesson by explaining to students, “You will be participating in a trial to determine who or what destroyed Reconstruction. In the trial, the most obvious victims of the crime — African Americans — will be the jurors. One group, in the role of African American jurors, will help to establish the crime, question prosecutors, and decide who is most responsible.” In some Rethinking Schools trial role plays, the primary victim of the crime is one of the defendants. The point is to surface many of the victim-blaming arguments that arise as justifications for historical crimes, and encourage students to speak back to these. However, there is a danger that this can amplify these problematic explanations. In this role play, we did not want to completely remove the victim from the courtroom, as we thought that doing so might silence their voice. We chose instead to reimagine the justice system and create a trial in which the greatest victims of a crime, in this case African Americans, would serve as the jury. (For more about how role plays and trials should — and should not — be run, read “‘I Saw Eyes Begin to Widen’: Joys, Pitfalls, and Dilemmas in Using Role Play in the Classroom.”)
I continued, “There will be five other groups who will be tasked with prosecuting a defendant charged with destroying the promise of interracial democracy during Reconstruction.” I made sure students understood what a prosecutor was and then showed a slide with their group assignments and a list of the trial defendants: The Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Poor Whites, Racism: The System of White Supremacy, and Capitalism: The System of Profit.
I then detailed what the majority of students would do. “The prosecutor’s job is to one, explain why the defendant you are prosecuting is most to blame, and two, explain why other defendants are not as much to blame as the defendant you are prosecuting.” I emphasized that every defendant played a role in destroying Reconstruction, but their job is to convince the jury that the defendant they are prosecuting should get the largest percentage of the blame.
In other Rethinking Schools trials, students are put in the role of defendants rather than prosecutors. We chose to make students prosecutors in this role play for a few reasons. Asking students to create a defense for racism or the Democratic Party, which during Reconstruction was often synonymous with the Klan, can prove difficult and possibly even hurtful. Although students would not defend racism, but show how racism cannot operate without the cooperation of other groups and systems, we still saw potential danger for teachers if the role play was taken out of context — for example, a student telling their parents they defended racism in class. Not only is putting students in the role of prosecutors less risky, but it worked better in my virtual classroom where every lesson took at least twice as long as in the physical classroom. Having students be the prosecutors cut the length of the trial significantly because there were no “defenses.”
Instead of creating defenses from scratch, I gave each group a mock indictment that they built off of. For example, the indictment for “Capitalism: The System of Profit” begins:
We like to blame people for crimes, but in this instance, the real culprit is a system: capitalism. Under capitalism, businesses compete to make more profits. And unpaid Black labor has been extremely profitable. . . . After the Civil War, Black people wanted justice for their inhumane treatment, but capitalism makes room for justice only if there’s profit to be made. When enslaved people were freed, capitalism forced them to go back and work for their former enslavers for low pay and under brutal conditions.
After I assigned each role and gave students time to read through their information, I encouraged students to take the mock indictment and make it their own — cut out words and phrases that aren’t needed, add in their own words to emphasize key points, change words that they wouldn’t use to language that is more accessible. When I felt like groups weren’t changing the indictments enough, I headed into their breakout room and asked a student to read their indictment out loud. I encouraged them to simplify and change any words or phrases that they stumbled over.
The result was often a mix of the original indictment with students’ edits, additions, and flourishes. To begin their prosecution of the Republican Party, my students Amir, Dianne, and Abdul wrote:
Ladies and gentleman of the jury,
We are here to convince you that it is the Republican Party that is the most to blame for killing Reconstruction. At first glance it may seem like the Republican Party cared about Black people, but the truth is they never did. Republicans supported freeing enslaved people because the North was losing the Civil War and they needed Black soldiers to win. They supported giving Blacks rights because they realized that without Black voters, they would lose the South. In other words, the Republican Party used Black people. Don’t be fooled by the people who tell you Black people were Republicans. The real power in the Republican Party was always wealthy whites. They benefited from using cheap Black labor in the South to provide cheap cotton for their factories in the North.
When students finished their edits and additions, I encouraged them to add a section explaining why other defendants were not as much to blame. I reminded them that their goal was to get the jury to convict the group they were prosecuting of the crime, and to do that well they would need to explain why other groups are less responsible. Each indictment had a section at the bottom titled “Other prosecution teams might argue . . .” I encouraged students to look at these sections to come up with ideas.
Prosecuting “Racism: The System of White Supremacy,” Jasmine, Tiffany, and Karim wrote:
All the other groups on trial were influenced by racism. They weren’t born racist, they were raised in a society that was built on white supremacy. Why did poor whites join with the Democratic Party to create the KKK and target Blacks? And why did the Republicans stop supporting Black people in the South? They were taught that white people were better and Black power during Reconstruction made them uncomfortable.
Although I often gave full-class instructions to the prosecution teams before heading into breakout rooms, I started in the breakout room with the group representing African American jurors. Although their task was similar, it was distinct and required a separate explanation. I clarified that their job was to establish the basis for the trial. “You want to prepare an opening statement for the trial that explains why Reconstruction was a success,” I told them, “and why the killing of Reconstruction was a horrible crime with devastating effects on African Americans.”
Like the students in the prosecution teams, they used the information they were given as the basis for their opening statement. In addition, I encouraged them to come up with tough questions to force the prosecutors to defend their arguments and consider other possibilities.
When students finished crafting their opening statement and final indictments, we were ready to begin.
During the trial, I served as judge, but students did most of the talking. As students were logging on in my first class, my student Juan unmuted himself to play the Law & Order theme song. This became a ritual every day of our virtual trial. After laughing together and saying a few brief words to introduce the activity, I handed it over to the African American jurors for their opening statement. Latasha delivered her group’s statement. She began:
Welcome. We are here today because a terrible crime has occurred. The promise of Reconstruction — where Black people finally were able to get some power, some justice, some freedom in this country — was destroyed. We’re here to figure out who is to blame.
After the opening statement, we moved on to indictments. I admit that virtually, this part was less fun. Students read their indictments, which were a joy to hear — but I found myself missing the ability to hear and see students’ reactions to each other. While each group delivered their indictment, I had students in the other groups take notes on what they thought were the best arguments from each indictment. After each prosecution, the jury kicked off the discussion by questioning them.
After the indictment of racism, one juror asked, “You’re saying that we should blame racism, but take a modern-day example. When a police officer shoots an unarmed Black person, you’re saying we should put racism on trial and not the police officer?”
After a pause, Haniah defended her group’s position, “We should put the police officer on trial, but if you just blame the police officer and do not acknowledge that the police officer was influenced by racism, you’re not getting at the root of the problem. The problem is not the police officer, the problem is the mentality of the police officer.”
After the jury’s questions I opened it up to other groups or posed my own questions until we had thoroughly grilled each team. Then we moved to the next indictment. I tried several different orders to the prosecutions, but the one I liked the best was the Democratic Party, Poor Whites, the System of White Supremacy, the Republican Party, and finally, Capitalism. Because the systemic arguments were the most challenging for students, it was helpful to break them up and put them toward the end after students had heard the other indictments.
After every group had gone, I pulled the jury into a breakout room to assign percentages of guilt to each group. I told students in the main room to step out of their roles and, in writing, do the same thing the jury was doing: assign percentages of guilt and explain their decision.
Juries’ decisions varied wildly class to class. Some blamed the political parties, while others put the emphasis on the systems. Although the Democratic Party often gets a lion’s share of the blame, James argued, “I really believe that the Republicans are the ones most responsible because they had all the power and were in charge of the federal government and decided they just didn’t care about Blacks anymore. They didn’t want to interfere when the KKK was attacking and the Democrats were doing all this damage. They had the power and they did nothing.”
Reflection and Essay
After the trial I had students reflect by answering five debrief questions:
1. Do you agree with the jury’s decision? Why or why not?
2. What were some of the most effective arguments you heard during the trial?
3. Are there other groups that were not indicted that should have been included?
4. How did you weigh the guilt of individuals or groups (Democrats, poor whites, Republicans) vs. the guilt of systems (white supremacy and capitalism)? Do you think the systems were more or less guilty? Why?
5. How did you weigh the guilt of the two systems? Was the system of white supremacy or the system of capitalism more to blame? Why? Are the two systems connected in any way?
I wanted these questions to allow students to step out of their roles and begin thinking about the larger lessons of the trial. In particular, the last two questions urge students to grapple with the systemic forces that played a role in Reconstruction’s demise. Answering the last question, Sonia argued that “Racism is the most to blame. Racism is what drove each of the other groups, caused division between people, and led the people in power to end Reconstruction. Capitalism got tied in because the economy needed Black people to be workers not landowners. But racism was the bigger factor.” Rachel disagreed and argued capitalism was more to blame, because the economic system “didn’t let ex-slaves own any land. That, more than anything, is what prevented them from making more progress.” Amir argued against placing the responsibility on capitalism or racism, because “the people fueled the systems and can change them.”
After our debrief discussion, I had students write an end-of-unit essay on the trial question: “Who Killed Reconstruction?” Using the style of a document-based question, I collected quotes from historians and primary sources mostly taken from Facing History’s The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy and grouped them by the defendants in the trial. I encouraged students to expand what they had written in their trial debrief into an essay using the primary and secondary sources I provided as evidence. Many students were able to construct complex arguments they wouldn’t have been able to without the trial scaffolding their thinking. In her essay, Haniah, a first-generation immigrant from Ghana, blamed capitalism for Reconstruction’s demise and gave a more sophisticated argument for the end of Reconstruction than I’ve seen in most textbooks:
Capitalism, an economic system based on increasing profits for business owners, locked Blacks in America into a system of forceful servitude. In Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, historian Lerone Bennett Jr. argues whites wanted to control and exploit Black people, “Because this would allow them to control the wealth that Black people created . . . the main complaint of the prosperous leaders of the terrorists was not race, but property. They claimed that the government was being used to favor the interests of poor people . . . at the expense of the rich.” In other words, because the system of capitalism places profit before people, leaders with power only wanted Black people to continue to work under rich owners to fuel the economy. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes in the article “Killing Reconstruction” in Jacobin that “Reconstruction failed not because Southern whites opposed it . . . but because Northerners abandoned it. They came to believe that . . . poor workers must not be allowed to vote because, given the chance, they would insist on a redistribution of wealth.” This emphasizes the fact that Southern powers were only effective in ending Reconstruction because the Northern powers did nothing to stop them. For these Northerners, the poor class had to stay poor in order to keep the system of capitalism stable, for that reason they dismissed any kind of opportunity for improvement for the poor class, which was predominantly Black.
In what was by far my toughest year as a teacher, it was responses like Haniah’s that kept me going. When we ask students “Who killed Reconstruction?” it can help them begin to see the connection between capitalism and racism. By contrast, asking students to assess the “failures and successes” of Reconstruction can lead them to parrot racist Dunning School mythology. At its best, it forces them into the same position W. E. B. Du Bois found himself 100 years ago.
As Eric Foner details in his foreword to The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, Du Bois presented his case, tentatively at first, in his oral presentation titled “Some Actual Benefits of Reconstruction,” at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in 1909. Du Bois defended freedpeople from responsibility for Reconstruction’s failure and emphasized democratic government, free public schools, and civil rights legislation as long-lasting reforms enacted by Black voters and legislators across the South. By 1935, Du Bois had adopted a full-throated defense in his seminal text, Black Reconstruction in America.
But Du Bois, like my student Haniah, goes so much further than defending Reconstruction’s “successes.” He analyzes how political and economic elites developed new ways to reinforce racism and capitalism to turn back a revolution led by African Americans. To get students to make deeper, more relevant historical connections that help them make sense of why 150 years later, we’re still fighting to make “Black Lives Matter,” we need better questions.
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