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We Need the Lessons of Reconstruction

Now, more than ever, the teaching of Reconstruction needs to be a central component of history education in high school.

I am involved in a campaign in my state of Ohio to bring Reconstruction back to the high school curriculum. Several years ago, the U.S. history curriculum was divided between middle and high school levels, with the high school course starting in 1877, after Reconstruction. On one hand, this structure allowed for a more in-depth study of post-Reconstruction topics. However, after a few years, I began to think that Reconstruction needed to be more closely studied by older students and brought back to high school. 

Here’s why.

 

The study of Reconstruction is essential to understanding race and race relations in the United States from Emancipation to the present.

A concentrated study of racial issues is essential to young people. The context surrounding the election of an African-American president, issues of police relations with minority communities and current social movements such as Black Lives Matter make it clear that race is still a force that shapes our daily experiences. Alarmingly, we are also seeing a rise in racial hate speech and violence since the 2016 election. It’s more crucial than ever for young adults to understand the historical context.

 

Our country’s historical understanding of Reconstruction highlights varying viewpoints on race.

Preeminent Reconstruction scholar Eric Foner points out that the history of the era was dominated for too long by a “traditional interpretation,” which ignored the role of freedmen in Reconstruction, saw black people as unfit for democracy and supported the view of white supremacy in the post-Civil War era. These ideas were taught for years in American schools. Newer scholarship eventually overturned these views and began providing a more objective analysis of the period.

"Citizenship, rights, democracy—as long as these remain contested, so will an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be."

Regardless, in the public sphere, we are still struggling with the historical memory of Reconstruction and its meaning. This is the very tension that exists now in the South, with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s decision to take down Confederate statues and the state of Alabama's efforts to keep them. We also see this in the continued debate over the “harmless” symbols from the Reconstruction period and their increased use by white supremacist groups and movements.

The historiography of Reconstruction and today’s controversies about how to remember the era provide students the opportunity to address how views of history can be influenced by the politics and social conditions of a period and how those views can change over time.

 

Reconstruction is central to the story of the expansion of rights and the evolution of democracy in the United States.

Reconstruction was no less than a revolution. Its political reforms laid the groundwork for a great expansion of democracy, especially in the changes to the Constitution. Three amendments ended the system of slavery, defined citizenship in the country and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. African-American men participated in the political system at every level of government. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau, African Americans constructed their own forms of social support through schools and churches. The expansion of democracy in this era paved the way, nearly 50 years later, for the democratic expansions of the Progressive era and, 50 years after that, for the federal legislation of the modern civil rights movement. The changes began in Reconstruction—despite setbacks—continue to shape our ever-evolving notions of participatory citizenship.

 

Reconstruction offers lessons on defending democratic rights.

Despite the advances, many freedoms gained during the era were taken away through terrorism, political deals and Supreme Court decisions that weakened the enforcement of the Reconstruction amendments. That rollback led to a long era of Jim Crow. As our students approach voting age, Reconstruction offers them a very modern lesson: the need for constant vigilance in defending hard-won freedoms. The struggle for voting rights and democracy since Reconstruction—in the form of the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and current efforts to preserve the protections of the Voting Rights Act (weakened by Shelby County v. Holder in 2013)—are lessons to students that freedoms are not to be taken for granted.

The monumental significance of the Reconstruction era, especially in terms of its impact on race and democracy, as well as its complex historiography, makes it a crucial component of American history that should be included in the high school curriculum. As Foner notes, “Citizenship, rights, democracy—as long as these remain contested, so will an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.”

Doringo teaches history, economics and human rights in northeast Ohio.