An Intersectional Lesson From Reconstruction

The lessons of Reconstruction extend beyond the history classroom.
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Photography by Getty Images

Last Tuesday, I joined the Twitterverse discussion of Henry Louis Gates’ newest PBS documentary series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. Following teacher Ric Doringo’s assertion that “we need the lessons of Reconstruction,” I engaged with educators asking critical questions like, “How come I never learned this history in school?” and “How can I teach violent histories to young people who are still emotionally developing?” From this documentary premiere and discussion, I learned a new story that taught me some not-so-new lessons.

In Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, I learned about the early years of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The tweet version of this history goes like this: In 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was established to support those who had survived enslavement. It was a “relief effort that ... would bring freedpeople to full citizenship.” More specifically, I learned, the schools created by the Freedmen’s Bureau were among the earliest integrated public schools, accessible to formerly enslaved people and poor white Southerners alike. During Reconstruction, survivors of slavery advocated for their needs at the intersections of race and class.

As W.E.B. Du Bois noted, it was Black people who fought to develop “public education for all at public expense” in the Reconstruction South. And when wealthy white Southerners ensured that they alone had access to education, it was the Freedmen’s Bureau schools that welcomed poor white students, as well. The work of the Freedmen’s Bureau in providing free public education for all people demonstrated this important lesson from Reconstruction: All our needs collide at the intersection of race, class and gender, which requires interdependent multiracial class struggle.

Rooted in the analysis first presented in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us the term intersectionality to describe the interlocking impact of race, class and gender oppression. From this framework, we are tasked with identifying and understanding how our race, class and gender identities together impact our lived experiences. When we teach from this understanding, we can better serve our students’ needs.


Here Are Ways I Invite You to Teach From This Understanding 

  • Read the Combahee River Collective statement and consider the relationship of race, class and gender and how it might shape your own experience or the experiences of your students.
  • Learn about Hazel Edwards, a trans youth activist who purposefully organizes from an intersectional analysis to best serve the needs of queer and trans young people.
  • Reflect on your own identity, and then consider these questions:
    • How do you notice your race, class and gender shaping your daily lived experiences? 
    • How do you see race, class and gender shaping your school climate, your teaching practice or your classroom culture? 
    • How would focusing on only race, class or gender change your school climate, teaching practice and classroom culture? 
    • How could focusing on the most acute needs in relation to race, class and gender change your school climate, teaching practice and classroom culture?
    • What is one change you could make in your classroom that is considerate of the intersectional relationship between race, class and gender? 

Bernal-Martinez is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.