Reenactors under the direction of performance artist Dread Scott retrace the route of one of the largest slave rebellions in U.S. history on November 09, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The 1811 uprising of slaves, mostly armed with hand tools, began in southeastern Louisiana, ultimately growing in size to roughly 200 to 500 slaves from sugar plantations in the area. (Photo: Marianna Massey/Getty Images)

Why the GOP Is Very Afraid of Students Learning the Real History of Reconstruction

This breathtakingly ambitious effort led by formerly enslaved people to eradicate a brutal and centuries-old form of racist exploitation—and to build an entirely new society—is rarely captured in state standards.

According to the state of Georgia's Standards of Excellence for teaching the Reconstruction era to eighth-graders, students ought to "compare and contrast the goals and outcomes of the Freedmen's Bureau and the Ku Klux Klan." That side-by-side framing of the federal agency tasked with supporting formerly enslaved people in the years after the Civil War with a group of White supremacist terrorists has two problems: It is not only an unsettling echo of the "both sides" language mobilized by then-President Donald Trump following the 2017 deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, but is also an example of how state standards fail to help educate young people about one of the most important eras in U.S. history.

The economic, political, and social gains made by the formerly enslaved during the 1860s and 1870s were swiftly and violently reversed.

In the first-ever comprehensive review of state standards on the Reconstruction era, "Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction," the Zinn Education Project found that most states tell a top-down story of government action that ignores the role of formerly enslaved people organizing for freedom. State standards include Black people more often as objects than subjects.

Equally troubling, several states' standards reveal the fingerprints of the Dunning School, an early-20th-century historical interpretation of Reconstruction named after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, who deemed the era one of "scandalous misrule" by "carpetbaggers and Negroes."

The narrative of Reconstruction perpetuated by many state social studies standards is part of a longer and larger struggle over the past, the latest episode of which can be seen in a rash of new restrictions on what teachers can tell young people about our nation's history. According toEducation Week:

More than 17.7 million public school students enrolled in almost 900 districts across the country have had their learning restricted by local action and the recent slate of laws and policies aimed to ban teaching concepts related to race, racism, and gender, and often deemed "critical race theory."

These memory laws affirm Faulkner's famous adage: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The interpretation of the past always shines through the prism of struggles in the present, shaping what we can imagine and how we act today.

For much of the 20th century, the Dunning School was the dominant narrative of Reconstruction--expressed not just in academic dissertations and books, but also in popular culture such as "Birth of a Nation" (1916) and "Gone with the Wind" (1936). It posited the era as a "failure" and, in the words of historian Eric Foner, "helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system."

Today's efforts to restrict what teachers can say about white supremacy's long shadow--including about its role in crushing Reconstruction--is only the latest manipulation of the past that serves a white supremacist political project.

Even before abolition was affirmed in law, Black people got to work making freedom manifest. They built churches, mutual aid organizations and hundreds of schools. They reunited with stolen family cleaved by slavery, formalized marriages, and established households on their own terms. They negotiated for control over their own labor, sought access to land, and advocated for the right to vote and serve on juries, and for state-funded public education. They held conventions and ran for and held political office at every level of government. And they joined the political coalition that enacted the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, fundamentally changing the nature of U.S. citizenship and government. This was Reconstruction.

Yet this breathtakingly ambitious effort led by formerly enslaved people to eradicate a brutal and centuries-old form of racist exploitation--and to build an entirely new society--is rarely captured in state standards.

Instead, too many standards bear the mark of Dunning's Confederate interpretation. Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee, for example, all exhort educators to "explain the role carpetbaggers and scalawags played during Reconstruction." These terms are offered up as neutral. But they are not. They are the rhetoric of white supremacists intent on reversing gains toward racial equality.

In Texas, one standard asks students to "explain the economic, political, and social problems during Reconstruction." There is no similar standard calling for explanations of how Reconstruction resulted in the expansion of democracy, education and rights. Texas requires its children to learn about Reconstruction as an era of problems, not solutions.

A more subtle example of the influence of the Dunning School is the "successes and failures of Reconstruction" framing that shows up in dozens of state standards. Arkansas's standards call for students to "evaluate successes and failures of Reconstruction," while Tennessee's ask them to "assess the successes and failures of Reconstruction as they relate to African Americans." Given the Dunning School's narrative of Reconstruction as an era of "scandalous misrule"--i.e., a "failure"--one can imagine that the writers of these state standards see the inclusion of "successes" as a kind of balance, a framing that allows for arguments on "both sides."

But the successes and failures story dangerously masks the truth about Reconstruction's demise. The economic, political and social gains made by the formerly enslaved during the 1860s and 1870s were swiftly and violently reversed. White vigilante groups and the Democratic Party waged a campaign of terror to restore a white supremacist social order while the Republican Party reneged on promises to freed people--and the larger promise of multiracial democracy--by returning to business as usual.

No, Reconstruction did not "fail"; it was destroyed. And its destruction was reinforced by a regime of laws, institutions, and violence that lasted well into the 20th century--and beyond.

Asking children to check the "success" or "failure" box on Reconstruction forces them to declare finished what is still alive and still underway. The struggle for voting rights, for example, did not "succeed" with the 15th Amendment, "fail" with the rise of Jim Crow, or finally "succeed" with the Voting Rights Act of 1965; that struggle continues today. History teachers are fond of talking about history as "relevant" to the modern moment; we want our students to understand that the past offers explanations of our origins, examples to be followed or avoided, models and inspiration for action today. But Reconstruction is more than relevant. It is ongoing.

A middle school history teacher in Louisiana told the Zinn Education Project: "It's impossible to understand the rest of the history of the United States without an understanding of Reconstruction." Indeed. Yet too many state standards are still riddled with the fictions of Confederate apologists, and too many state legislatures and school boards are making it harder for educators to correct them.

What might young people do with the real history of Reconstruction? That, it seems, is exactly what some people are afraid of.

© 2023 The Washington Post