Episode 4, Season 4
Just months after the Civil War ended, former Confederates had regained political footholds in Washington, D.C. In her overview of Reconstruction, Kate Masur notes how—in the face of evolving, post-slavery white supremacy—Black people claimed their citizenship and began building institutions of their own. Ahmad Ward then takes us to 1860s Mitchelville, South Carolina, where Black policing power, land ownership and more self-governance were the norm.
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- Learning for Justice: Teaching Toolkit for “Be Your Own Historian”
- Learning for Justice: Lesson, The True History of Voting Rights (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Student Text, 14th Amendment (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice: Student Text, Reconstruction (grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-12)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Tensions ran high in Grant Parish, Louisiana, ahead of the 1872 election for governor. Former Confederates filled the ranks of the Democratic Party, and they wanted desperately to oust the Black and white Republican coalition that controlled the state government. Some 4,600 ballots were cast on Election Day, resulting in a close but clear victory for the Republican candidate.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Defeat did not sit well with the former Confederates. They questioned the legitimacy of the election because they did not believe that African Americans had a right to vote. In Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, white men plotted to overthrow the local government. Inspired by the Klan, they formed their own racial terror group—the White League—and announced plans to seize control of the Parish courthouse. To prevent a coup, a Black militia, comprised of former Union soldiers, marched on the courthouse in advance of the White League and took up defensive positions.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: On April 13, 1873, a couple hundred White Leaguers and their supporters showed up at the courthouse with Confederate-issued weapons—including a cannon. It wasn't long before they opened fire, letting loose a blistering volley of pistol, rifle and cannon shot. The Black militiamen held off the siege for as long as they could—killing three white men in the process. But the mob had them outgunned. Surrender was the only way out. But when the former Union soldiers laid down their weapons, they were massacred; some shot, others hanged. In all, about 150 African Americans were murdered that day.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Eventually, 97 indictments were handed down, but only nine convictions followed. And even that modicum of justice proved fleeting. In 1876, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions, ruling in United States v. Cruikshank that individuals could not be guilty of violating Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law because the amendment applied only to states, not to individuals. By narrowly interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, the ruling limited the ability of the federal government to protect the civil rights of African Americans, sending a clear signal to white Southerners that they could do whatever they needed to do to end Reconstruction and restore white supremacist rule.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Three-quarters of a century later, in 1950, the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry erected a historic marker on the spot where the massacre took place. The marker read: "On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 Negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In a mere 32 words, the state marker captured the typical response to hard history. Rather than deal with those aspects of our past that make us uncomfortable in the present—such as racial massacres—we create false narratives. By labeling the massacre a "riot," the marker suggests that the Black defenders of democracy were just as responsible for the tragic events of that day as the members of the white mob.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Rather than deal with hard history, we attempt to rationalize evil. By asserting that the massacre signaled "the end of carpertbag misrule," the marker suggests that the mass murder was necessary to save democracy from corrupt Black and white Republicans.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And rather than deal with hard history, we pretend events like the Colfax Massacre didn't even occur. The version of events captured in that historic marker was taught in Louisiana schools for decades. And when Black Power activists insisted on accurate history in the classroom, Colfax completely disappeared from standards.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Colfax was not an anomaly. America has a long tradition of racialized political violence. Also not anomalous were the white responses to the massacre, including contemporary silences.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But what if we had been teaching the truth about the massacre all along? Perhaps we would not have been surprised on January 6, 2021, by the attempted insurrection by supporters of the outgoing president. Donald Trump whipped up the mob for two months by suggesting that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, a baseless claim predicated on the racist idea that ballots cast in Black communities like Atlanta, Georgia, were suspect.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Perhaps too, if we had been teaching the truth about the massacre all along, maybe January 6 never occurs. Maybe Trump voters see through his lies, recognizing in them the same falsehoods that led to the Colfax Massacre. At the very least, many more of us would not have been surprised by the day's events. Shocked, yes. Surprised, no. We also would have been in a much better position to defend the Capitol that day—and defend democracy every day since.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To understand how Reconstruction and the response to it set the stage for the Jim Crow era, we need to fully understand what Reconstruction accomplished, and how white Southerners undermined those accomplishments.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Historian Kate Masur has written extensively about Reconstruction, including co-editing the anthology, The World the Civil War Made. In this episode, she explains what students need to know about the era. Then, educator and exhibits expert Ahmad Ward takes us to Hilton Head Island to discover what he and a team of researchers have learned about Mitchelville, one of the very first self-governed towns of formerly enslaved people in the United States.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But first, my co-host Bethany Jay discusses with Kate Masur how we should be framing Reconstruction in the classroom, from its successes to its unraveling.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm so glad you could join us.
Bethany Jay: I'm so pleased to welcome Kate Masur from the Department of History at Northwestern University here with us today. She's the author of several books, including the recently published Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction, which I might say sparked quite a conversation with some women on a blanket next to me at the beach while I was reading it this summer. Dr. Masur has extensive experience working with K through 12 teachers, and also consulting with museums. So I, for one, have been a fan of your work for a long time, and I'm so glad that you're here to help our audience make sense of the complicated era that is Reconstruction, and also offer some advice about how to teach this content.
Kate Masur: Thank you so much for having me, and I completely love and I'm flattered by the image of my book as beach reading, so thank you so much for conjuring that up.
Bethany Jay: So to get started, you've been in the classroom for a long time. What's your perspective on how most Americans view Reconstruction and how it's taught in the classroom?
Kate Masur: Well, I think there are a couple different challenges associated with teaching Reconstruction. One is that it falls in a weird time in the semester because sometimes the first semester ends with the Civil War, and the second semester picks up after the Civil War, and it's kind of unclear where Reconstruction is supposed to fit in the curriculum. Should you cram it in with the Civil War part, or should you pick it up in the kind of post-Civil War part? So then where do you put Reconstruction?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: There is another problem, which is Reconstruction is really complicated, so it's hard to teach it well. And then there's the looming problem, which is that there are so many myths and untruths and distortions around the history of Reconstruction, particularly, I think for those of us who are a little bit older, maybe people who are teaching in classrooms who were taught the version of Reconstruction, which is it was one of the worst periods in American history. It was a shameful period of repression and unnatural oppression of the Southern states by a vengeful federal government. And so overturning that narrative is part of the challenge of teaching Reconstruction.
Bethany Jay: I was just having this conversation the other day with my students and I was saying I was taught a version of that narrative of Reconstruction. And I said, I'm not that old. I went to high school in the '90s, and then I realized that they probably think that I am that old if I went to high school in the '90s. [laughs]
Kate Masur: I mean, I went to high school in the '80s, and I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it, in part because the teacher seemed to be conveying that this was such an important period in American history, and yet I couldn't fully fathom why that was, since it seemed like everything that happened afterwards kind of overturned it.
Bethany Jay: Yeah.
Kate Masur: Okay, there was this blip in time where a bunch of really unusual things happened. But why should we really understand this when later we get Jim Crow, we get lynching, we get all this racial repression, and in the end, over the long scope of history, it feels like not a lot changed? So I think that is another challenge: figuring out for ourselves why does Reconstruction matter? What do we want students to learn when we talk about it?
Bethany Jay: You've highlighted a lot of the complications. And Reconstruction is a bit amorphous for most people, partly because it is so complicated. So how can we help teachers to frame Reconstruction in the classroom, to come away with the big ideas that are going to highlight its importance and not just its undoing?
Kate Masur: I have come around to pointing out two main challenges that the United States as a nation faced as the Civil War ended: how do you bring the states that declared themselves out of the Union, formed the Confederacy and waged a war against the United States of America, through what mechanism do you bring them back into the Union? That's challenge number one, and challenge number two is: what will be the future of the four million formerly enslaved people in the Southern states now that this huge institution—slavery—has been toppled?
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: What would their freedom look like? What would their rights look like? What kinds of protections, if any, will the nation as a whole offer to them living in this context in which we know that many if not most of their white neighbors really wish they were still enslaved. And I would add that, in the process of solving these problems, national leaders committed this country to attempting to be a multiracial democracy.
Bethany Jay: And the long-standing impact of Reconstruction is this commitment to multiracial democracy. And that gets us to why does Reconstruction matter?
Kate Masur: And this is really the first time that that happened in American history, and that was really fundamental to the struggles and eventually the backlash that we see in this period.
Bethany Jay: And of course, the political process is also part of addressing these two questions: what do we do with states that are in rebellion, and what will be the future of free people? Can you lead us through some of that political process of Reconstruction?
Kate Masur: Sure. So let's put ourselves in Washington, DC at the end of 1864. It's pretty clear that the United States, the Union, is going to prevail in the military conflict that is the Civil War. The Senate had passed the Thirteenth Amendment in the spring of 1864 that's going to abolish slavery and give Congress the power to pass legislation to ensure that slavery is abolished. And in January of 1965, the House passes it, so now a Constitutional Amendment has been passed. And this is a monumental step that the government is taking. What we're looking at is the beginning of a series of measures that comes out of Washington, DC, designed to change the relationship between the federal government and the states, and put federal protection around the individual rights of people in a way that had never existed before.
Kate Masur: And that goes to the question of what is the future of African Americans in the United States? And the way that that connects to the question of how do you bring the former Confederate states into the Union is the Thirteenth Amendment has to go out to the states for ratification. And what ends up happening, Congress makes Southern states approving of certain federal measures a condition of their readmission. So eventually Congress is going to say, "You can't come back into the Union until you do things like ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, ensure that African-American men have the right to vote. And at that point you will be able to send members to the House of Representatives and to the Senate and become a regular state again.
Kate Masur: And so these two issues about under what conditions are the former Confederate states going to be readmitted, and the issue of protecting African Americans' rights for a time in the 1860s go alongside each other.
Bethany Jay: One of the things that my students are always very surprised about in this moment is the nature of citizenship as outlined in the Constitution, because a lot of what's happening during Reconstruction and throughout the entire course of of American history is trying to figure out how do we define citizenship, how do African-American people claim citizenship? Can you explain to us the nature of citizenship before Reconstruction, and how Reconstruction deals with that issue?
Kate Masur: One of the things that's pretty strange about American history is that, from the founding of the country, there was no unified definition of who was an American citizen or what being an American citizen even got you. For example, if you look at the original Constitution before the Reconstruction amendments, there are only a few references to citizenship. A couple of them have to do with citizenship as a qualification for holding high office—the President of the United States, has to be a citizen of the United States. And then there's this interesting clause in Article four, Section two of the original Constitution, which says the citizens of the states are entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of other states, which was a clause that was often really contested before the Civil War when it came to the rights of African Americans. And so one of the things that's interesting is that Article four, Section two, which I certainly encourage everyone to read, it's still there in the Constitution, it kind of referred to state citizenship. So it was more or less saying, if you're a citizen of a state like, let's say, New York, you're entitled to privileges and immunities of citizens in other states when you're traveling to other states.
Kate Masur: And this became the subject of a lot of agitation before the Civil War when African Americans were often working. For example, Black sailors working in the intercoastal trade, they would be on ships that left ports like New York City and Boston traveling to Southern states. When they got to port in, let's say, Charleston or Mobile, they would help unload the ships and then bring new goods onto the ships. And these states passed laws that explicitly said Black sailors need to spend their time in port in prison because we consider them a threat to our society, or they need to spend their time in port on the boat. They can't come ashore. And in the period before the Civil War, we often find people in New York, Massachusetts and other northern states making the argument that this was a violation of the constitutional rights of free Black sailors under the privileges and immunities clause. They should be able to exercise their full rights, including their personal freedom and liberty and mobility, regardless of what state they were in. But even though this was in the Constitution, that citizens are guaranteed a right of free travel, and even though states like New York and Massachusetts recognized free Black people as citizens of their states, there was no way to enforce that interpretation of the privileges and immunities clause.
Kate Masur: Congress was not interested in it. People who wanted to test this in federal courts weren't able to get a case into federal court. This is just one of the many ways in which citizenship remained kind of up for grabs and very diffuse and amorphous. We normally think of the Dred Scott decision of 1857 as kind of the landmark in that history and the declaration that Black people—whether enslaved or free—could never be citizens of the United States. But it's helpful to see Justice Taney's decision in Dred Scott as part of a much broader conversation in which many people—African Americans and white people—were making the exact opposite argument, and had been doing so for a very long time. So Reconstruction policy at the federal level is going to try to resolve some of those questions.
Bethany Jay: And it becomes very clear as part of the political process of Reconstruction, that defining citizenship and ensuring that African-American people can make claims to citizenship no matter what their status was before the war is going to be absolutely necessary to accomplish any of the goals of Reconstruction.
Kate Masur: Yes. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which Congress passed in April of 1866 over the veto of President Johnson, basically says what the Fourteenth Amendment would later say in different language, which is: everyone who's born in the United States is a citizen of the United States. So it's basically clearing up any question about whether African Americans, whether they were born enslaved or born free, this is one of the things that they're trying to resolve. If you are born in the United States, you are a citizen of the United States. And then when we get to the Fifteenth Amendment, of course, voting rights is defined around citizenship as a prerequisite for the right to vote. So we have to kind of establish who is a citizen in part so that when it comes time to make a federal definition of who has the right to vote, it's going to say there can be no racial discrimination among citizens in the right to vote. And they're explicitly saying citizens can't be discriminated against racially in the right to vote. It's a kind of important prerequisite to define who is a citizen of the United States, and to have a federal definition that should be uniform across the states, as opposed to allowing states to make their own decisions about who is a state citizen and who is not.
Bethany Jay: In a lot of ways, Congress's moves to define citizenship to protect the rights that are afforded to citizens is a reaction to the first era of Reconstruction, Presidential Reconstruction. First Lincoln, of course, during the Civil War, but then Johnson after the Civil War takes on Reconstruction as a presidential act. And Johnson's time overseeing Reconstruction, as short as it was, makes it clear how much the protection of rights and those definitions of citizenship are needed. Can you speak a little bit to Johnson's time in charge of Reconstruction?
Kate Masur: Andrew Johnson became president in the middle of the process of ending the war, and Johnson wanted to be in charge of Reconstruction policy. And Congress was out of session when he became president after Lincoln was murdered, and so he kind of took matters in hand and he makes a series of proclamations basically for each of the rebel states saying, "I will now appoint a provisional governor. You will make a new constitution. You will accept the abolition of slavery. And there are going to be certain disqualifications for people to hold office." So Johnson puts into his proclamations the policy that if you were a particularly wealthy person, you would be disqualified from holding office or voting unless you got a presidential pardon. And this, by the way, makes people think that Johnson, who was an enslaver himself before the war, he's actually going to be hard on the Southern white elite, and he's going to be a president who looks out for Southern poor white farmers and possibly also for African Americans.
Kate Masur: And all of that turns out to be completely untrue, because over the summer and fall of 1865, all of these members of the Southern elite make pilgrimages to Washington to seek his pardon, and he pardons them. And then during that summer and fall of 1865, Southern state governments kind of reconvene and they say, "Okay, you know, let's create new constitutions. We'll abolish slavery, fine. And we will begin the process of sending representatives to Congress." But really, there wasn't a lot being demanded of these state governments. So for example, the president wasn't saying you have to have laws that protect the rights of free African Americans. You have to have laws that allow Black people to testify in court on the same terms as white people. I mean, none of that, much less that he was not saying that Black men have to be allowed to vote. To the contrary, he was saying the states get to decide who has the right to vote, and the people who will vote to elect delegates to the state constitutional conventions will be the people who were able to vote in 1860 before secession, which were exclusively white men in the states. And so Johnson's policy is really an example of almost the softest possible approach to the former Confederacy. And this is part of what Republicans in Congress are really going to take issue with when they finally reconvene in December of 1865.
Bethany Jay: And we see a lot of former Confederates elected to Congress, including Alexander Stephens.
Kate Masur: Right. Right, the vice president of the Confederacy is going to be sent to Washington to represent Georgia. There's a lot, obviously, of concern among particularly Republicans in the North about these developments. And another thing that's very concerning is that when the Southern states under presidential Reconstruction start to have their constitutional conventions and start to make laws, they pass these things that are called Black codes. And this begins with Mississippi, and then South Carolina comes next. And completely obvious to everyone, they're making these extremely racially-discriminatory laws that say things like, if a Black person commits a crime, the punishment is much greater than if a white person does, or Black people aren't allowed to own property in cities was one of the provisions of the Mississippi Black codes.
Kate Masur: These are a set of laws that, while they're not literally reinstituting slavery, they're designed to create a system of complete white supremacy and racial repression. And this makes very clear there needs to be some outside force exerted on these states to insist that they cannot do things like this, that after fighting this war, after ending slavery, it is not appropriate to create a racial caste system in which Black people have virtually no rights whatsoever, and are completely subject to the whims and the power of white people, of their white neighbors and of state governments. And so this sets up what ends up happening in Congress in 1866 and 1867.
Kate Masur: Another thing that's happening during this same period of quote unquote "Presidential Reconstruction" when the, you know, white Southerners are convening these state legislatures, and prominent former confederates are seeking pardons, African Americans are also mobilizing, both in the North, where people had been free for a long time and were very accustomed to lobbying state legislatures and organizing meetings and petitioning and so on. But also in just about every former slave state, we see Black conventions meeting, people coming together, often in statewide conventions to define what their political aspirations are, and to petition and make arguments both to these state governments that are reforming and to the federal government about what needs to happen next.
Kate Masur: And I wanted to mention one document that I particularly enjoy teaching and talking about with students. It's a document that's available through the Freedmen and Southern Society Projects website. The title that they've given the document is "Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention." And this is a document from January of 1865. So again, before the Thirteenth Amendment even passed Congress, before the Civil War was even over, a group of African Americans meet in Nashville, and they're going to send a petition, a statement of their values and their beliefs to a unionist meeting, a meeting of white unionists that is happening in the capital city of Tennessee in Nashville. And in that petition, they're basically making a case for political equality, racial equality and civil rights. And it's very interesting to read it, and the kind of claims that they make. And I like to highlight with students first of all, their natural rights claims that they make. So basically making claims in the name of humanity, that they are asking for things that they believe all human beings are entitled to.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Kate Masur: They also talk about their loyalty to the Union. So they talk about how Black men have served this country loyally, and they contrast that with the many white people who made rebellion against the United States. And they say, "How can you tell us that we are not entitled to certain kinds of rights when we are the ones that have fought to keep this country together?" One of their main goals is to get the right to vote for Black men. And remember, this is a state-level issue. So they want to tell this meeting of white unionists in Nashville: when you make a new constitution, all men should have the same right to vote regardless of race. And they say "We know that Black men voted in the past." Even in North Carolina in the early Republic, Black men had the right to vote, not to mention in places like Massachusetts and New York. They give a bit of a history lesson, and they kind of say, "We've seen in other places and other times when African-American men voted and everything was fine." Like, don't be afraid of this.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: And they also say "We're in a period of tremendous change." When the US Army first started recruiting Black men into the forces, and that was in 1863, a lot of people couldn't believe it. They thought it would never work. They thought it was too radical. And look how loyally Black men have served, how much difference they made to our ability to win the war. Now you might think asking for Black men's right to vote is something really radical, but we're in a time of change. We can accept things now that we might not have accepted in the past, and don't let your prejudices get in your way. So I think this document really encompasses a lot of the spirit and the kind of ideas that were floating around among African Americans, being transmitted through networks of people who knew one another, who sometimes went to meetings across state lines with one another. And this is only one of many, many documents like this that come out of this moment of great organizing among African Americans during 1865 that only continues into subsequent years.
Bethany Jay: I love this document because we get African-American voices in it, and I also love it because I always use the Revolutionary-era petitions of free and enslaved African Americans petitioning for freedom as part of the revolutionary moment with my students. So continuing this narrative all the way through strikes me as a really nice way to give class time right to Black mobilization and political thought at times that we don't always do it.
Kate Masur: And I would just throw in the Color Conventions Project, which is now at Penn State, is doing an amazing job of making documents like this available. And particularly if you happen to be teaching in one of the ex-Confederate states, there's probably a document like this for you from your state. Because these conventions happened, I think, in every ex-Confederate state if not in 1865, then in 1866 or 1867. So it's a nice way to bring it home if one of your states is represented there. And I should add that it's not only Southern states where African Americans had these conventions, including in the post-Civil War years. I know there's an Illinois one from 1866, and many other Northern states are represented as well, although the issues might be slightly different that they're discussing.
Bethany Jay: Great resources, and thank you for pointing us to that one.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources, as well as a full transcript complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return to Bethany Jay's conversation with Kate Masur.
Bethany Jay: Congress sort of hits a reset on Reconstruction, and takes over from President Johnson and starts again with what's known as Congressional or Radical Reconstruction, Which is the moment that ties civil rights for African Americans with that political process. And one of the first major things that Congress does, we have the 1866 Civil Rights Act, followed quickly by the 1867 Reconstruction Acts. Can you talk with us about how those take control of Reconstruction policy and change the narrative about citizenship?
Kate Masur: When Congress meets in this session from the end of 1865 through the first half of 1866, they're looking at all of these pleas coming in from African Americans. They know that in many places, white Southerners have been enacting violence and intimidation against African Americans, in part around labor relations, to try to ensure that Black people aren't leaving plantations, that they'll remain a labor force on the plantations. Congress is looking at people like Alexander Stephens coming to Congress. They're looking at this kind of defiance that they're seeing coming out of white Southerners toward the political process, and they want to throw some protections around African-Americans' rights and the rights of white unionists in the South. And to do that, they know that they have to constrain the power of the states. A lot of these measures have to do with finding ways within our federalist system of putting strictures around the states and saying the states still have a lot of power, but there are certain things you cannot do, right?
Kate Masur: And so in the 1866 Civil Rights Act, they say all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens except Indians not taxed, and people subject to the power of foreign government. And then they say, you know, all citizens are entitled to the same rights as white citizens. So they're basically setting white citizenship as a standard, and saying all citizens should enjoy the same rights as white citizens. And then they set up a bunch of mechanisms in that law for enforcement, including that if you take a case of discrimination to your local court or state court and you feel you didn't get justice, you can move it into federal court. It's also going to say that there are federal marshals who can arrest and federal prosecutors who can prosecute people for these kinds of violations. So in other words, they're not willing to leave the protection of rights up to the states, which is where that protection would have always lain in the past.
Kate Masur: And to the surprise of many Republicans in Congress, the President vetoes this law. And then Congress proceeds to pass the law over the President's veto. And this kind of sets the pattern for what's going to happen going forward is that President Johnson is going to resist what Congressional Republicans, who now have a sizable majority in Congress, Johnson will resist them, but because the Republican majority was so large and relatively united, they could pass legislation over the President's veto. So the measures from 1866, the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, which also passes in 1866, they don't really deal with voting rights very directly.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: And this is again, I mean, kind of like blatantly obvious. It's much discussed whether we should go ahead and make sure that Black men also have the right to vote. The view that prevails on that is we can't do that yet because we're worried that if we go too far, we're going to lose in the 1866 midterm election. And so politics really figures in here, and we can think about parallels to that in our present day.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: If the Republicans, for example, were to go really far in 1866, really far at the time would be like, and we're going to force the states to enfranchise Black men. And then they come around to the midterm election and they get, you know, drubbed at the polls and the Democrats come into power, they're not going to be able to do anything else, right? So anyway, what happens is in the 1866 election, they do win handily. Basically, the Northern public puts its stamp of approval on what the Republicans are doing in Congress, and that means that when they come back for the next session, they are poised to pass these 1867 Reconstruction Acts, which are really the things that ensure the enfranchisement of Black men in the former Confederacy. And so it's important to notice that this is coming through Congressional legislation. This is not happening because of the Fifteenth Amendment, which hasn't been passed yet.
Kate Masur: This is coming because Congress is making laws that directly affect and shape Reconstruction policy, again passing them over the President's veto. So the 1867 Reconstruction Acts—and this is what's called radical Reconstruction or Congressional Reconstruction—they basically say, okay, yeah, we're going to start over. We still haven't accepted the representatives that the governments formed under Johnson's policy. We haven't actually said they were legitimate. They've basically put all that on hold and kind of denied the legitimacy of that entire process. And they say, "All right, now you're going to start over. We're going to put the former Confederate states, except Tennessee, under military control. The military is going to oversee elections. Black men will be enfranchised in these elections, and the first set of elections is going to be electing delegates to state constitutional conventions." And then the Congress says, "You're going to meet and you're going to make a new state constitution. And you're not only going to accept the abolition of slavery"—which by now is in the Constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. "You're going to accept the Fourteenth Amendment. You're going to enfranchise African-American men. And then you're going to, under those terms, elect a new state legislature. And at that point, when you've done those things, you may send representatives to Washington and we'll probably admit you."
Kate Masur: And so it's basically that the terms of Reconstruction and the readmission of the states have changed in a way that emphasizes not only what people saw as the civil rights of all people—especially African Americans—but also political rights. They're also saying, "No go. We're not going forward until Black men have the right to vote and hold office." And that completely transforms the possibilities for what can happen politically going forward during Reconstruction.
Bethany Jay: And one of the thoughts, if I'm remembering correctly, when they were initially debating voting rights for African Americans was a question of would it really matter? Would African-American men vote, or would they be under the power of influential white men? And what we see is when, given the right to vote with these 1867 Reconstruction Acts, that African-American men mobilize in huge numbers to participate both in the state constitutional conventions and further on.
Kate Masur: Right. There was an organization called the Union League that was a Northern-based organization that produced pamphlets, and things like scripts for talking about registering to vote, becoming a voter. Of course, they were Republicans, so they said, "And when you vote, you should vote Republican." And Southern Union League organizations formed. They were not necessarily super directly connected to the Northern larger Union League organization, but the idea was we're going to form kind of local organizations. We see that social structures that came out of slavery, pre-Civil War Southern Black society, served well to form the backbone of these Union League organizations. We know, for example, that during the time of slavery there were enslaved preachers, there were elders on plantations who were particularly respected. Some enslaved people had learned how to read by one way or another. There were also free African Americans in the Southern states who had a bit more status, perhaps they were skilled tradesmen. And so these are some of the people who we see leading these local organizations. There were also white and Black Northerners who came to the Southern states to help with this organizing push going from plantation to plantation holding meetings, talking about the need to register to vote. Talking about what it would mean to be a voter. And in many cases, this was very dangerous work.
Kate Masur: So there are documented accounts of people being murdered and threatened in this work of trying to register people to vote. An illustration that I really use a lot in teaching, it's called "Electioneering at the South," from the summer of 1868 from Harper's. This image shows an African-American speaker on a plantation speaking to a group of men and some women who are sitting on a porch and there is a child standing in the background. And it's a very dynamic picture. The speaker is holding out his hand, kind of gesturing as if he's talking about something really important. It's not directly from 1867 when Black men first voted, but it captures the same kind of idea, just a year later during presumably this is the election season of 1868. This is when Grant was elected, but locally it's defined by a huge political mobilization of African Americans and a lot of violence in some places.
Kate Masur: And I like this a lot because it shows a rural scene. We don't have as many rural scenes of politics. We have rural scenes of agriculture, but this is a rural scene of politics. It looks like they're on a plantation, and it's the formerly enslaved people now free workers gathered around. Another reason why I like this image is because it does show women attending the meeting. So you see some women on the porch and another woman kind of sitting in the background. And this really is consistent with what we know from textual sources. Women did actively involve themselves in politics in this moment of coming into the political sphere, even though it was only men who could actually exercise the right to vote. Women attended political meetings. We have records of women emphasizing to the men in their lives that they must vote and they must vote Republican. There are even some instances where we find that women say we're going to make it clear that we are withholding romance unless our men vote Republican. And really just a lot of documentation that, for African Americans, the vote and becoming part of the body politic as part of this process of becoming free, was something that the entire community was invested in.
Bethany Jay: In terms of the men casting ballots, can you talk with us a little bit about another image called "The First Vote?"
Kate Masur: This image has become really iconic in images of Reconstruction, and this is also from Harper's Weekly from 1867. It was apparently an image that was made from a sketch of an artist who was in Virginia at the time. It shows four Black men kind of in line to vote, and the artist has clearly gone out of his way to show a diversity of clothing and faces and ages among these men. Clearly, one of the men in this line is a United States soldier. He's got the chevrons on his arm, showing that he's an officer. Another looks like a kind of prosperous farmer—the man wearing a hat. And the man in front is wearing patched clothes. He's older. We could sort of imagine him as someone who's seen a lot.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: All of them presumably could have been—in our imagination could have been born enslaved. Or possibly not. We don't really know. But this kind of older man suggests something about that this is something he's been waiting for his whole life. And I think this is something that's interesting to point out: this is not similar to caricatures of African Americans, which tended to homogenize people, to act as if all Black people were the same and had the same kind of caricatured features. This is showing distinction among people. Another thing that I like to point out about this image is how they're voting. You see that there are two glass bowls, and the man who's in the front of the line is depositing his ballot into one of them. And just for students to understand that at this time, people voted in front of everybody else, and oftentimes the ballots were color coded. So, you know, it was partly to make sure that people who didn't know how to read or write got the right ballot. So let's say you had a green ballot for one slate of candidates and a blue ballot for another. So when you went up to cast your vote, anyone who was standing around could know which glass jar you deposited it in and what color your ballot was. This is one of the things that made voting very dangerous. It made it very risky for people who were subject to reprisals.
Kate Masur: White people who opposed Black men's right to vote would gather around these polling places. There were often armed confrontations at polling places in which white people tried to stop Black people from voting with guns, and Black people in turn using whatever guns they might have had in their community, or sometimes sticks intended to look like guns came to the polls as well to try to protect this right. And yet, even when they deposited their ballot, people would know who they voted for, and they could face reprisals like getting fired from their job or getting run off their land. And so this was really, really risky. And back to your question about people who oppose Black men's right to vote saying, "Oh, well, they probably won't have any independence from their employer, or they'll just vote in whatever way their employer wants them to." I mean, these kinds of power relations really did matter. I mean, there were enormous kinds of threats and coercion looming over people. And yet there are so many accounts of Black men again with, like, Black communities, with women supporting them, saying, "You know, I am going to vote the way I choose to vote. You won't tell me how to vote." But it was very dicey. It was very hard. It was very dangerous in a lot of places.
Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you mentioned that, because some of the other things that happened during Congressional Reconstruction are laws to protect African-American people from racial terror, because it's not as though the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are passed and everybody is like, "Well, okay, then. I guess we can't do that." We still see a lot of racial terror happening in the South, and those enforcement acts, you know, the Ku Klux Klan Act really is what allows some of that political activity to go on.
Kate Masur: One of the interesting things is in the early 1870s, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, the Justice Department and attorneys within the Justice Department, as well as military people at times, did succeed in arresting and bringing to trial many members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations, and also that the threat of bringing people to trial and actually bringing people to justice was enough as well to suppress some of that violence for a limited amount of time. But white people largely did these things with impunity in their local communities and at the state level, terrorizing Black people to stop them from exercising their right to vote, running them off their land. There were not, in many places in the South, white authorities who were willing to prosecute people who committed crimes against Black people.
Kate Masur: And so what you needed to have is some kind of outside force, in this case federal force, that was going to come in and say, "If local authorities aren't going to deal with this, then the federal government is. So by 1870 and '71, the Fifteenth Amendment has been ratified, so now we have these three Reconstruction amendments lined up which delineate new rights, and the capacity of Congress to pass legislation to protect those rights. So the Congress does in 1870 and 1871 pass a series of additional civil rights laws—the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 71—trying to put kind of teeth into those principles, to really put the enforcement mechanism on the ground, creating statutory language that says, "These are the kinds of crimes against people's right to vote and against their civil rights that are now basically being made federal crimes that can be prosecuted by federal authorities, where we can put federal marshals and federal attorneys on the ground to try to bring people to justice. And these federal laws are really the backbone of the capacity of the federal government to try to bring some kind of justice to the Southern states. But there was so much resistance by Southern white people to this new order, and it was so persistent and violent that they made it incredibly difficult. They made the cost of enforcement incredibly high for the federal government.
Kate Masur: And so this is one of the central tensions of Reconstruction: the amount of federal authority that was going to need to be on the ground in order to curb the kinds of violence and criminality that white people were unleashing on Black people, and the extent to which the government was going to be able to continue to put enough people on the ground to make an effective difference, versus were they at a certain point going to give up and say "We can't do this anymore. This is politically unpopular."
Bethany Jay: Reconstruction plays out differently in different states. Can you point us to a case study of Reconstruction that could be useful for teachers to use to understand how it really played out on the ground?
Kate Masur: South Carolina's really interesting because of the hugely dramatic nature of the change that took place.
Bethany Jay: South Carolina is nothing if not dramatic in this whole time period.
Kate Masur: Yeah, exactly. And I would say also, if you are teaching in a state where this history is really relevant, I would go for the local history of your area.
Bethany Jay: Right.
Kate Masur: Every state is kind of different, but I think there's so much to be said for really bringing the points home to students by talking about the place where you happen to be. But South Carolina is a particularly interesting state to look at. The most prominent theory of states' rights, or because it was the first state to secede and kind of led the intellectual tradition of Southern separatism and secession. And yet South Carolina was the state that had the largest percentage of African Americans in the state. So in 1860 it was about 60 percent African or people of color living in South Carolina. So white folks were a minority, and that meant that the political transformation associated with Black men's right to vote was incredibly dramatic. And if you think about it, if you go from a system in which only white men can vote and have any say in the formal political process to a system in which all men, regardless of race, are entitled to vote, in a place like South Carolina where it's, you know, even a majority of African Americans, this is going to transform the state quite significantly during Reconstruction.
Kate Masur: The state government did pass Black laws in the end of 1865, when the government was convened under the policies of President Johnson. But then things changed dramatically when Black men got the right to vote in 1867 thanks to Congress's Reconstruction Act. And so the first election in which Black men vote is the election to elect delegates to the new State Constitutional Convention. And that convention meets in Charleston in January of 1868, and three-fifths of the delegates to that convention were African American. And obviously, this is a group of people who had not been involved in state politics directly, representing people who had been enslaved just a few years earlier. And this is dramatically going to change the political agenda of this convention.
Kate Masur: One thing that's worth noticing is white representation was even more diminished than you might think because many white people just sat out this election. So white people believing that the system that was being set up by the federal government was illegitimate simply refused to participate. So you actually have a greater representation of African Americans as a result of that. In South Carolina, the state constitution that was adopted in 1868 abolished debtors' prison, it provided for public education, it barred racial distinctions in public accommodations, so places like railroads, streetcars, steamboats. It barred racial discrimination in the right to vote, and that was part of what it had to do if South Carolina was to be readmitted to the Union. It, of course, abolished the Black codes that had been adopted in 1865, and it also forbade segregated schools. That was not something that was actually delivered upon, but it was an ideal. And it also had no provision against interracial marriage.
Bethany Jay: That's interesting.
Kate Masur: So many Northern states and some Southern states during Presidential Reconstruction had banned interracial marriage, and this constitution was silent on it, suggesting that among the many measures that kind of went toward racial equality, they were also not interested in legally barring interracial marriage. Now there were a couple of radical proposals in this constitutional convention that were not adopted. I think it's important to say a couple of things that were on the agenda that they didn't do.
Kate Masur: Some of the Black delegates had argued that women also should have the right to vote in this newly-reconstituted state of South Carolina. But that provision for women's right to vote went down to defeat. And same with a proposal to confiscate plantation owners' land and redistribute it among the poor people. That was floated at the convention and also did not pass. So there were—it was very radical for its time, particularly for the state of South Carolina, but there were proposals that kind of went even toward more progressive goals that did not pass.
Bethany Jay: We often in the classroom talk about 1868 just sort of in reference to Grant's election, but it's really interesting to shift the focus in thinking about 1868 to these constitutional conventions where we see a lot of really progressive ideas in many of these constitutional conventions.
Kate Masur: Absolutely. I mean, I think, Grant's election is a kind of national question, and it's incredibly important, and it kind of takes Reconstruction policy in a new direction, at least as compared to what Andrew Johnson had been doing. And it's also an interesting kind of callback to the Civil War because he was a general and things like that. But yeah, I mean, this is one of the tricky things, but also one of the remarkable things about talking about Reconstruction. So much of the action was at the state level, and it might seem complicated to try to have to get into that, and I definitely think you can't and shouldn't try to cover, like, every state. But there are really parallels to the present as well because, you know, there's so much action going on at the state level now in terms of policies that affect our lives, that affect everybody's lives. And so, you know, when we think about, like, does it really matter what's going on in our statehouse, in whatever state we're in? Yes, absolutely it does. And, you know, we can think about that and kind of bring that home to the students a bit, I think.
Bethany Jay: And questions about what role does the federal government play in those state decisions as well, also really relevant for today.
Kate Masur: Mm-hmm. Yes, it is. All the states have a really different story when it comes to Reconstruction. But one thing I'll say is that across the Southern states, the new Republican-influenced state constitutional conventions and state legislatures made a lot of policies that economically favored poorer people and small farm owners as opposed to plantation owners. And this was quite a change from Southern politics, particularly by the time we get to the late 1850s, where almost all the Southern states had planters in control and economic policies that really favored the interests and the aims of the planter class, which often really didn't support the aims even of white small farmers and white working people who didn't own land. And so across the South, we see a kind of transformation toward economic policies that favor laborers over bankers and creditors, that favor small landholders over large plantation holders. So in tax policy and credit policy, there's really a change in the economic agenda of these states even before we get to issues of race and racial equality.
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Bethany Jay: One of the narratives of Reconstruction we began our conversation with is this idea that Reconstruction is corrupt, governments are ineffective. What does the example of South Carolina tell us about that narrative?
Kate Masur: So South Carolina, again partly because of its demographics, continued to have very strong Black representation in state government into the 1870s. There was a Black majority in the state House of Representatives for quite a while. There were Black Speakers of the House starting in 1872. They eventually do create a land commission for the state which is able to purchase land where people haven't paid their taxes and then sell it on good credit terms. And in this way, actually, thousands of African-American families and a few white families gained access to land ownership.
Kate Masur: But South Carolina then becomes the kind of exemplar for Southerners and Northerners also who want to attack Reconstruction. And there are a lot of caricatures of the South Carolina state House of Representatives in particular that suggest that the people who are making the laws are not competent, they're not qualified, they don't belong there. There are even in Harper's Weekly, as it becomes more conservative in the 1870s, these kind of really horrendous racial caricatures of the South Carolina legislature that we actually see replicated, by the way, in Birth of a Nation. So there are some images in that really racist 1915 film that show a state legislature meeting and African-American men putting their feet on desks and eating fried chicken and leering at white women, and all of these kind of horrible caricatures that draw on ways that the South Carolina legislature in particular was represented at that time.
Bethany Jay: And that's "Colored Rule in a Reconstructed State," right? That's the title of that cartoon. Is that the one you're thinking of?
Kate Masur: Yeah, I think so. And it's such a change, I mean, for teaching, if people wanted to kind of contrast that with earlier images like the one we talked about before, "The First Vote," of the dignity of African-American men entering into politics, and the ways that some of these kind of formerly progressive Northern periodicals eventually sort of turn against the experiment in Reconstruction as the 1870s continues.
Bethany Jay: And even there's that famous picture of the Black delegates to the Constitutional Convention, or the first representatives in South Carolina, you know, those different images that are available as well.
Kate Masur: Right, right. Or "The First Black Congressmen," that famous image where people are portrayed as individual people with the facial features that they would have really had looking dignified and like they belong there. But, you know, one of the things that's interesting looking at the backlash against Reconstruction, I mean, first of all, I think it's important to remember that we are talking about very dramatically changed possibilities for what governments would do. When you bring new people into the electorate who potentially have different class interests and different racial interests from the people who had done the governing in the past, you can really change the direction of government. And the vote is at the center of that. It's incredibly powerful. And so the white backlash is multifaceted. It's partly about resentment that slavery itself is over. It's partly people who never wanted slavery to end, who think that people of African descent belong on the lowest rungs of society, ought to be subordinated by whites and things like that.
Kate Masur: But the virulence of the backlash against Black men's voting and holding office is partly genuinely about fear that policy changes are going to happen that people don't want, right? That wealthy people are not going to be favored anymore in public policy, that tax policies, that economic policies, that policies respecting racial equality are going to go in a direction the white elite doesn't favor. And they are very, very worried about that. And this backlash, you know, takes many different forms. And sometimes we see just overt racism of the most vile kind, you know, people talking about so-called Negro rule or, you know, the barbarism of formerly-enslaved people now getting a chance to rule or be part of politics.
Kate Masur: But there's another strand that I think really resonates now, and kind of is important throughout American history, and that is when new people come into politics, when people are increasingly enfranchised who didn't vote before, the idea that corruption is associated with that. That, you know, there's something wrong with these voters, that they are not able to cast independent votes, that there's mismanagement in the voting process or mismanagement in government. Also, the idea that taxes are too high. This is one of the things that people often talked about against these Reconstruction governments. "Look, you know, I don't have any problem with this new regime, I just think they're taxing us too much and we have to get rid of it." And kind of moving around, kind of avoiding an explicit racial rhetoric and talking about how they just, you know, don't want to see so much government spending. And so, you know, these are kinds of go to statements that people on the conservative end of the spectrum went to during Reconstruction and, you know, we continue to see that kind of thing.
Kate Masur: Now I just want to quickly add, I mean, there was corruption during Reconstruction. The Republican governments did spend a lot of money, often money that they didn't really have. And so there was a lot of kind of debt spending, a huge amount of debt taken out by the states, which were already in debt because of the Confederate war effort. There were people who were kind of self-dealing, who were, you know, working on railroad contracts where they themselves were invested in the railroad and things like that. But there's first of all—and historians have looked into this in great detail—I mean, there's no correlation found between African Americans in office and that kind of corruption. In fact, the kind of power of African Americans during Reconstruction has often been really exaggerated. So South Carolina is really one end of that spectrum, but in many places, Black people didn't hold office or exert political power anywhere near their actual numbers as proportionate in the states.
Kate Masur: And also, Democrats engaged in similar corruption. I mean, so when the Democrats came back into power, they too were spending a lot of money on infrastructure, and making money off of the investments and things like that. And really, this was a period in American history where there was a huge amount of corruption. There had not developed the kinds of standards around if you're in politics, you know, keeping your money out of investments that you might be part of politically that we supposedly have today. And so the corruption issue during Reconstruction is used against newly-enfranchised Black voters and Black representatives. It's used in a racialized way, but we can also acknowledge that there was actual corruption, but it wasn't racialized or necessarily even associated with one party in the ways that partisans at the time made it sound like it was.
Bethany Jay: That narrative of corruption and mismanagement, that helps to make the undoing of Reconstruction respectable or palatable to large numbers of people. And then the racial violence that comes back as Reconstruction is undone in the South sort of makes it complete. Can you talk to us a little bit about how Reconstruction—I don't want to say ends, but how this period of Reconstruction changes as we get to the end of the 1870s?
Kate Masur: The conventional end of Reconstruction is like the settlement of the election of 1876. But what has happened between, you know, the early 1870s and the 1876 election is, for one thing, white Southerners' sort of multifaceted refusal to accept this new order means that the cost of federal enforcement or protection of African-Americans' rights gets higher and higher. So white Southerners are perpetrating violence against Black Southerners and white Southern Republicans. They are murdering people who are involved in politics. They are threatening them with murder and rape. They are doing all kinds of violent things that are designed really to suppress the vote, to persuade Black men not to go out to the polls, that it is more dangerous to try to vote or certainly to campaign politically than to stay home and just mind your own business.
Kate Masur: At the same time, they're resisting in other ways. They're refusing to cooperate with federal prosecutions of the Klan. People won't appear as witnesses. People threaten witnesses. They try to sabotage these federal trials. They try to hide what's going on from federal officials. And so with all of this resistance among white Southerners, you're going to have to have a lot of political will and a lot of commitment coming from Northerners, and particularly the Republican Party, which has always been the only party of the two major political parties that's invested in this period. Like, the Democrats actually never supported Reconstruction. It was only because the Republicans were in the majority in Congress that this was able to continue. And in 1873, there's a huge economic crisis. It's sort of like the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. All kinds of banks fail, companies fail, and people hold the Republicans responsible because it's the Republicans who are in office in the federal government in this period in 1873. And so the Republicans are on increasingly precarious footing after that.
Kate Masur: The House of Representatives turns over to the Democrats in the 1874 election, and all of this makes the Republicans a lot more cautious about doing things like sending troops in to suppress violent white supremacy in cases where white people are interfering with elections in the South. It makes Grant a lot more cautious, it makes Republicans in Congress a lot more cautious. And so the pulling back from supporting these Reconstruction policies doesn't happen all at once as a result of the 1876 election. And I think I would really emphasize the importance of the economic crisis of 1873 in really changing Northern politics.
Kate Masur: But the thing is, even though the possibility that the United States government would protect the rights of African Americans in instances where states were refusing to do anything, that's a fundamental feature of Reconstruction. It's part of the novelty of this period, it's part of the lasting significance of it. And most of that is kind of diminished after 1877, although from time to time, Congress does continue to talk about passing—particularly when the Republicans kind of resurge in power, continues to talk about passing new legislation that will protect African Americans in the South. But even as that possibility of federal protection kind of wanes, interesting things are still happening in the Southern states. So Black men actually continue to vote in a lot of places even after 1877. You have a really interesting biracial movement called the Readjuster Movement in Virginia in the late 1870s and early 1880s that manages to do a lot of progressive things, even though it's again after 1877. And you have a lot of other moments of coalition-building between African Americans and whites who are not interested in the kind of siding with the planter class, and these kinds of biracial fusion movements they're called that persist into the 1880s. And there's a lot of violence, there's a lot of tumult, but there continues to be a fair amount of flexibility in the 1880s in Southern politics in many places.
Kate Masur: And it's not until the 1890s, you know, starting with the Mississippi State Constitution of 1890, that white Southerners begin to get together and really in law, solidify white supremacist rule. And so they're doing it on the heels of a lot of campaigns of violence and intimidation, but they don't have the power to fully implement it until the 1890s. And then there's the question of whether what they're doing is constitutional. And so it's blatantly violating the Fifteenth Amendment to systematically disenfranchise people, even though they try to get around that by saying that it's really not about race. But this has to go up to the Supreme Court, you know? And so it's really not until the end of the 1890s, with decisive things like the Wilmington massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, in which, you know, a biracial government of the city of Wilmington is violently run out of power, or the Supreme Court renders this decision that all of these state constitutions actually that disenfranchise Black men and many white men as well are actually constitutional, that they do not violate the Fifteenth Amendment. This is really the consolidation of a new order in Southern life and in national life. And it doesn't fully get cemented until the end of the 1890s.
Kate Masur: One of the things that I think that's helpful to convey to students is it was actually pretty hard for white Southerners to quote-unquote "redeem" the South. Like, it didn't happen overnight. It took several decades to bring this more progressive potential biracial democracy to its knees. And people fought back in a variety of different ways. And so it wasn't just like this one moment with the compromise of 1877 that ended it all. No one thing could end it all because it was about processes, it was about things that were going on locally and at a state level. And, you know, in terms of people's lives too, and maybe this is something we can turn to now, you know, many of the innovations, many of the Black institutions that began to take shape after slavery had been abolished persisted even as political prospects for African Americans, you know, dimmed a lot as these years went on.
Bethany Jay: Yeah, can you speak to us a little bit about some of the organizing that went on in Black communities throughout the period that we've been talking about, you know, alongside these political initiatives, and how that persisted?
Kate Masur: Another thread of this story is we are talking about what happens to African Americans after slavery is abolished. And when we have been talking so far about, you know, the future of free Black people, we've focused mainly on politics and federal policy. But another really important aspect of this, if you think about it from the perspective, particularly of, you know, this kind of social history of what did it mean to end slavery, what did it mean for people who had been enslaved, whose ancestors had been enslaved, to now be able to pursue some forms of freedom?
Kate Masur: And we can acknowledge that there were all kinds of forces pushing in on them that limited their choices, and yet there really was a meaningful difference between being enslaved and being free. And African Americans coming out of slavery, they are building institutions. And one of those key institutions is the family. Black families had been threatened and dissolved and assaulted by slavery for generations, simply by the fact that people could be sold away from their families at the will of the owner. That Black parents, even when they weren't sold away from children, weren't able to exert the kind of parental authority and make choices for their children in the ways that free parents were because of the surpassing authority of the enslaver. And so one of the key things that African Americans are doing in the wake of slavery is reconstituting families, looking for family members who had been sold away.
Bethany Jay: Mm-hmm.
Kate Masur: In some cases cementing marital relationships that had existed for a long time but had never been legally recognized. In other cases, moving away from spouses who maybe had been kind of forced on them by an enslaver, and going to be with someone who they really loved. Taking care of children, going out and looking for educational opportunities for children and adults. I just wanted to mention this website "Information Wanted," which is a really wonderful database of advertisements that African Americans placed in newspapers, basically kind of saying, "I last saw my daughter when she was being sold away to Alabama," let's say. "And has anyone in Alabama come across her?" These are really poignant, and they're really remarkable testaments to the ways that people's family bonds and family feelings persisted despite the assaults that slavery made on Black families. And then when people had the opportunity, they went and tried to reconstitute those.
Kate Masur: One of the other single features of Black communities in this period is trying to build schools and get educated. People might be most familiar with the idea that the Freedmen's Bureau helped create schools in the South, and that is true. The Freedmen's Bureau was very involved in that, but one of the things we find is that, even before the Freedmen's Bureau existed or had the capacity to provide things like construction materials to build a school, or help place a teacher from a Northern society in a Southern school, Black communities were organizing to build these schools. I talked earlier about how structures of Black communities from the days of slavery kind of continued, and so there were often in some Black communities people who had literacy skills, people who owned a little bit of property, maybe they had been free before the war. Many times, Black property owners would give a portion of their land to the community to build a school on. They would raise money and then write to a Freedman's Bureau agent or a missionary society and say, "Hey, could you please send a teacher to our community?" Many of those teachers were African Americans. Many were Southern Black people who again had had an opportunity to get educated.
Kate Masur: And then some too were, like, white Northern missionaries that are better known to us in history. And this is the era when many of the historically Black colleges that we know today were founded. And so people were focusing a lot on common schools, elementary schools, but also looking at creating high schools and colleges and opportunities for higher education for Black students.
Kate Masur: And then the other thing which is kind of connected to schools were the creation of independent Black churches. So freedom created the opportunity for African Americans who had previously been forced to worship in white Protestant churches to leave those churches. And there had been some of those independent Black denominations in the slave states before the war, but now after the Civil War, they really flourish. Independent Black, Methodist and Baptist churches in particular. And churches often were associated with schools, so a church building might be the place where school was also held. And these were really important community institutions. They were places where people obviously could gather not just for worship, but to raise money to create societies that would pay for funeral expenses. This is sometimes where political meetings happened.
Kate Masur: And so again, I mean, in terms of what did and didn't survive from this really dynamic period in American history, these Black Southern institutions: family relationships, churches, schools, these survive, you know, well beyond the 1870s and into the present. And these institutions and this history that I'm talking about right now is a little bit independent from the ups and downs of the political history that we were talking about, right? So all of the ways that African Americans confronted freedom, expressed what they wanted in terms of families and churches and communities and education, all of that flows out from the end of slavery and continues, not totally independently from what's going on politically, but in its own kind of strand of history. And so I think we really have to kind of think about that, and hopefully teach about that as well, because it's really a central thrust of Black Southern history in particular is what happens and how do people kind of confront the end of slavery?
Bethany Jay: And some of those institutions, you know, churches, schools, particularly HBCUs, will be so pivotal in challenging Jim Crow as we get into the 20th century, right? Their organizing power comes back into play as we think about Jim Crow, challenging that period as well.
Kate Masur: Absolutely. Absolutely. And there's a real continuity there. You know, different things are possible in different moments. So by the 1890s and later, it would be a pretty bad idea to have a very confrontational politics with the white power structure in a lot of Southern places, but then we see by the mid-20th century in a place like Montgomery, Alabama, Black churches as the seat of an increasingly kind of confrontational movement against Jim Crow, against that kind of racial oppression.
Bethany Jay: Why do you think it's so important that our students not only learn about Reconstruction, but learn about Reconstruction correctly?
Kate Masur: This is one of the most pivotal moments in American history, in which vast changes were possible, and vast changes actually happened. First of all, the idea that it was all undone, although I might have come out of my high school history class thinking that, that's not quite true, right? So we talked about the persistence of Black institutions and the kind of flowering of Black institutions that did not go away, were not undone. Also, the Reconstruction Amendments, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the civil rights statutes that were passed in that period—many of which are still part of federal law—these did not get undone. They went unenforced for quite a long time, but provided the framework for future civil rights and voting rights struggles. And today, we're still grappling with those amendments, so we need to understand the possibilities offered by those amendments and by the federal statutes that were passed during Reconstruction, many parts of which are still on the books. And we also need to understand their limitations. I mean, what the Fifteenth Amendment, for example, gave us, but also the things that were left out of it that could have helped us in our current-day struggles over voting rights.
Kate Masur: I would also add that, you know, this is the first time—as I said at the beginning, Reconstruction is the first time when American political leaders really tried to create a multiracial democracy. Such a thing was not attempted back at the time of the American founding. And so to the extent that we're still struggling over these questions about what American democracy looks like, questions about race, about structural racism, about how this democracy is supposed to work with so many different kinds of people in it, with so many people with such different political views, we can look to Reconstruction for the first moment when that was really attempted, and think about also not only what people tried to do and how they tried to do it, but also what brought it down, right? And think about the opposition to it. And these dynamics from this period have things to teach us about what we're up against now when we try to advance ideals about democracy.
Bethany Jay: Well, we have had a wide-ranging conversation about an important and misunderstood era, and I am actually pretty positive that the content and the context that you've provided about Reconstruction will help a lot of teachers to feel more confident bringing this history into their classroom. So thank you so much, Dr. Masur, for being with us today.
Kate Masur: It was really a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Kate Masur is a professor of history at Northwestern University. She is the author of several books, including Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction and An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, DC. Dr. Masur is also the co-editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Next up is my conversation with Ahmad Ward, the executive director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park in South Carolina. Mitchelville was one of the earliest freedpeople's towns established during the Civil War. Let's find out what this incredible site can teach us about the transition from slavery to freedom.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Brother, what's going on? Welcome to Teaching Hard History.
Ahmad Ward: Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be here. Appreciate it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, look, I want to dive right in. Can you explain to the audience what is historic Mitchelville Freedom Park?
Ahmad Ward: Absolutely. Mitchelville is the first self-governed town of formerly-enslaved people in the United States, established in 1862 on Hilton Head Island. At its height, there were 3,000 people that lived in the community in about 500 homes. These families were given a quarter acre of a lot. They developed their own schools, churches, businesses. They were able to vote. And so it was somewhat of a small utopia in the middle of enslavement during the Civil War in the state that started the Civil War.
Ahmad Ward: Originally, there was about 600 acres of Mitchelville. The property that we are managing right now is a fraction of the original community. We've got about 33 acres down on Beach City Road in Hilton Head, and we're trying to interpret the story of Mitchelville with recreations of the property as well as our interpretive center. Currently there are only some facades of buildings and some interpretive panels, some signage where you can click on QR codes and get some more detail. But we've completed a master plan for the upcoming cultural attraction site that will allow us to talk about why Mitchelville in the 21st century is something that we should be talking about, and why this story should be a keystone part of American history. Our tagline is "Where freedom began," because we believe this is the first opportunity that Africans in America had a chance to be citizens of a community that they started, and so we're trying to highlight this important community along the themes of freedom, democracy, citizenship and opportunity. And we'll show that in the interpretation that we’ll have on site.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What type of interpretation do you all do that might be of use to teachers in the classroom today?
Ahmad Ward: Well, besides the tours that we're doing on the site, we have a literacy program for pre-K to third grade called Griot's Corner. We're reading books, we're doing activities around a book, and we make sure that those teachers get a book, because they may not have these kinds of books in their classrooms. And so, of course, they go back to those four themes I mentioned earlier: freedom, democracy, citizenship, opportunity. But also, we're talking about self-awareness, self-esteem, being comfortable in your skin. So we have a lot of books about African and African-American culture. We're trying to broaden the scope of these books, and how they relate to Mitchelville. We're doing books like The Adventures of Connie and Diego, which are bilingual books. They're half English, half Spanish. And we're bringing in people to read them in Spanish for our Hispanic Latino population.
Ahmad Ward: We do a leadership program for high school kids. Well, when COVID is not giving us a problem, we do leadership programs for high school kids. We're teaching leadership along the vein of the Mitchelville story, and we train them to be docents. And so we had kids before COVID shut everything down doing docent tours of the park. We are currently working on a program for middle school kids. It's a history hike that will give them the history, but also talk about the importance of the environment here, and teach them about how they can effectively advocate for the environment where they live, how they can appreciate the nature where they live.
Ahmad Ward: We want Mitchelville to be interdisciplinary, and not just about the history. And so we'll be talking about the math. And so we'll be talking about the science. How does this science work out? And the math of the grid itself, each family getting a quarter acre of a lot. On the back end of our interpretive center will be an event lawn that will be three-fourths of an acre. And we are purposely making sure that we're putting down lines of demarcation on each quarter of that acre, so the kids can see this is how long a quarter of an acre actually is. This is what these people had to work with. This will also show the closeness of the houses. We'll talk about how they painted the houses white to push out the heat from the sun so it's deflecting that's going to keep the house cool. We'll have a garden where they can learn the kind of things that were grown on this site, like okra and tomatoes and sweet potatoes. And this is how they were able to sustain themselves. And so we want this to be an immersive learning experience through the whole property, not just the elements inside the interpretive center.
Ahmad Ward: We're working on lesson plans for K-12 teachers that we hope to have ready to go in the first part of the fall. I know that teachers need things that are going to align with the standards, obviously. But they need things that are going to be ready for them to use without having to work at it. And so that's the kind of interpretation we want to do on this site for regular classroom teachers, for homeschool teachers, for people who are just trying to push a deeper level of understanding for their own children, for higher ed. We're trying to make sure that we're doing all of the things that need to be done.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who were the folk who are enslaved on Hilton Head and become the free people of Mitchelville?
Ahmad Ward: So for Hilton Head, there were roughly about 24 plantations on this really small 12-mile island. And in the general area, you have countless other plantations. The coastline of South Carolina is absolutely tremendous for rice production. The people who were going to the motherland to kidnap people to bring over here were targeting West African countries like Sierra Leone and Angola, because these people had the knowledge of rice cultivation already. People were sought out and targeted based on the knowledge base that they already had, okay? It's not that they were just grabbing folks and then we're gonna show you how to do this stuff. No, it was very strategic that they were picking people specifically for a task.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that's an important point about who these people are. In other words, Africans are enslaved not because they couldn't do something, but because of what they could do, their expertise was sought after.
Ahmad Ward: Right. Exactly. And so all these folks are brought here, and then as a mixture of those folks, and they are, through the relationships of all these different kinds of folks, Gullah or Gullah Geechee. Gullah Geechee culture is an amalgamation of cultures, and it's created this subset of culture that has its own rich history and language. So the Gullah Geechee corridor reaches from Wilmington, North Carolina, to about Jacksonville, Florida. And we're kind of smack dab in the middle of the corridor here on the South Carolina coast.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, you mentioned that Mitchelville comes into being early in 1862. You know, the Civil War has just begun. How does it come into being? I mean, what are the circumstances that lead to Hilton Head Island becoming this experiment in freedom while slavery and the war continues to go on all around it?
Ahmad Ward: It's a pretty incredible story. At the Battle of Port Royal, which is November 7, 1861, the Union army comes down to attack Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard, bombarding both forts for three hours straight. They just couldn't hold up to the pressure, and so they left. You know, they retreated, which meant that every one of the enslaved people at these plantations are now de facto freed, but really contraband of war as established by the events at Fort Monroe.
Ahmad Ward: And so as contraband, they immediately search out where the army is because they're liberators. You had, like, 400 people come in within a week to this area who had learned about what happened, and they knew if they got to Hilton Head they'd be free. And so David Hunter, who was the commander of the forces, tried to create a barrack system to house people. It was not well regulated. There were a lot of problems with it. And he had this idea to start the colored troops based on the Sherman order number 15, which is where we get 40 acres and a mule. He uses this language to unilaterally say that he will free all colored people who pick up a rifle and fight for the Union army. Hunter does not have this power, and he gets away with it for about two months before Washington finds out. Now Lincoln is friendly with Hunter, so he tries not to destroy his career, so he reassigns him.
Ahmad Ward: The person that comes in is Ormsby Mitchel. Decorated general. He's also an abolitionist, and he sees the conditions and decides that this is a good way to show that Black people can be self-sufficient. This is the underlying question during the war: can Black people be self-sufficient? Can they do things without oversight? And so he has this opportunity to show it here. And so he gifts them about 700, 800 acres of property and says, "This is your land. You build on it, you grow on it." He gives them access to the saw mill. He gives them tools and says, "Hey, we want you to build churches and schools and buildings." Unfortunately, General Mitchel will not see the completion of this project because he contracts yellow fever and passes away around 45 days after initiating this endeavor. It's named Mitchelville in his honor, and the people went to making sure that they could not only take on the task that he laid out in front of them, but create a situation that they felt they could pass down to generations to come.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I've had the honor and the pleasure of visiting Mitchelville not too long ago, and one of the things I did when I visited, you know, I took a moment and just sort of drifted off to a quiet space, and just sat down and closed my eyes and tried to imagine what this place would have been like: the activity, the movement, the bustling, the sense of possibility in 1862. If our listeners could close their eyes for a second, what would they see in 1862, '63 as Mitchelville is coming into being?
Ahmad Ward: They would see rows of houses on a grid designed by the Army Corps of Engineers where these people were able to actually work on the property in the ways they saw fit. They would see women outside cooking, sweeping the dirt around their homes, maintaining their property, growing the food that would sustain not only them, but the soldiers they were selling and trading and bartering to right across the marsh where the army would be. They would see gentlemen grabbing bateaus, which are the traditional Gullah flat-bottom boats, and taking them out to the Port Royal Sound to fish, to get crabs, to shrimp. They would see people creating their own businesses. And so you had this entrepreneurship that was happening in Mitchelville, selling, of course, not just with the soldiers, but with the actual townspeople in Hilton Head.
Ahmad Ward: The churches that would have been there, that would be your town hall, that's your courtroom, that's your school until the school system is directly established in 1866. Mitchelville is the first compulsory school system, mandatory school system in the state of South Carolina. Every child in the community between the age of six and 15 had to go to school, because they also understood that true freedom would have been found in education. And so you would have been seeing these people who were considered inferior not too long ago, who would have been seen as not being able to take care of themselves, not only taking care of themselves, but educating their young people so they could be prepared to reach the next level as these things progressed.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We also know that there were some pretty famous people who passed through Mitchelville.
Ahmad Ward: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. William Lloyd Garrison, foremost abolitionist of his time, knew about Mitchellville, and on a trip to commemorate the beginning of the war at Fort Sumter, he was visiting Savannah—which is not that far from us—and requested to come to the Freedman town he had heard so much about. And so he comes to Mitchelville and speaks at First African Baptist Church. Sister Harriet Tubman was here in the area, brought in to help Black women to kind of get into this mode of being self-sufficient, training, teaching them about trades and things of that nature to integrate themselves into regular American life. She was here as a nurse and also a spy for the Union army. And so during the Combahee River Raid, where they freed 756 people, which depending on what scholar you listen to, she either co-led or she was there. Some people try to, you know, mess around with her importance with this battle. But at any rate, out of that 756, she personally leads 100 of these individuals back to Hilton Head, and they settle at Mitchelville. And most of the men end up joining the Union army.
Ahmad Ward: In addition, Clara Barton, who starts the American Red Cross, is here during the war working as a nurse. And Clara Barton comes back in 1893 after the Great Sea Islands Hurricane, and she basically single-handedly helps to repair not only Hilton Head, but the Sea Islands, because the government was slow to act to repair it. At that time, this hurricane was, like, America's worst natural disaster. And she raised the money through, you know, private donations. She's the one who cracked the whip to get this area re-established.
Ahmad Ward: So there's so many people that were coming through this area. There are newspaper articles from Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington. People know about Mitchelville because this is basically a rubber-stamped project by the Union. And now here we are in the 21st century, and your average citizen has no idea what Mitchelville is.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. You know, one of the things that I like about Mitchelville in terms of teaching purposes, is that it does provide these points of entry for this broader discussion. Points of entry for talking about the life of a William Lloyd Garrison or a Clara Barton. The same thing with Harriet Tubman. You know, I wonder, Ahmad, what were some of the challenges that this first generation of residents of Mitchelville residents will face as they transition from enslavement to freedom, and build up this free Black community?
Ahmad Ward: Well, I think one of the major challenges is, of course, there's no pamphlet, you know, there's no primer, there's no thing you could go read about how to act after you've been, quote-unquote, "freed." And so there was a learning curve that had to happen as they were trying to establish this whole situation. Now you did have people like Edward Pierce, who was assigned to this area to help oversee the transition for them being self-sufficient. There was a direct council, and the mayor Abraham Murchison, they were working in tandem with the Army to make things happen. However, one of the largest problems they would have faced would have been that every man in the Union Army was not for this. You know, there were definite instances between soldiers and townspeople: unruly activities, sexual assault, things of that nature. You had situations where Union soldiers were actively trying to sell people back to their slaveowners. And so this was not all peaches and cream with the folks who supposedly are fighting for the cause. Those interactions would have been some of the biggest impediments to them moving this forward. But even with that, you still had the overall power of the government really pushing for this thing to happen. And so there were some things put into place. One of the just incredible things I found out during this research is Mitchelville residents had the power to turn away white men in uniform from entering into the community.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow.
Ahmad Ward: Like, you had to have a pass. And if your pass was not squared, it was not up to date, if it was not right or you didn't have one, they could physically turn you around and tell you you can't enter. I mean, you're not going to see that in the South in 1960, you know?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] Right. Right.
Ahmad Ward: Let alone 1862, 1863. The notion that they had that kind of autonomy over the community is amazing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Policing power. They had their own policing power.
Ahmad Ward: They had their own policing power.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I was thinking immediately back to South Carolina's Negro Act of 1740, a new slave code passed on the heels of the 1739 Stono Insurrection. And one of the measures in that new Negro code is that any white person can stop any Black person and demand of them identification, proof that they are supposed to be where they're supposed to be, whether they were enslaved or free. And if that Black person resisted, then that white person had the authority on the spot to take the life of that Black person, to kill that Black person without any consequence. So that's South Carolina, right?
Ahmad Ward: Right. Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, that is in the culture, that is in the soil of South Carolina, how the color line is going to be policed. And so for you to say then that these folk in Mitchelville, you know, could flip that on his head completely is really just stunning.
Ahmad Ward: Oh, absolutely.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What happens to Mitchelville? You mentioned the devastation that was wrought by the hurricane of 1893, destroying much of the physical infrastructure of Mitchelville. What's the story leading up to 1893 and then after that?
Ahmad Ward: So the war's over in 1865, a lot of people leave to try to find people that they have been separated from during the war. And so during the period of 1865 going into the late 1880s, the population would shrink. It turned to a more subsistence form of living, so the things that they were growing to sell, the things they were building and creating to sell, stayed internally so they can reinforce the community itself. Unfortunately, because the resources were low, they started to dismantle some of the old schoolhouses to help to undergird homes and structures that were very necessary. You would still have education that's happening at the site, but it would be a lower, lower scale.
Ahmad Ward: And of course, 1893, you have this hurricane which takes out everything. But people do come back, and folks are able to maintain their property. However, then you had people coming in who saw the opportunities in Hilton Head in the early 20th century, and started buying up property to make it a hunting and fishing refuge for wealthy white men. And so the population of Hilton Head in 1900 would have been close to 3,000 people, and they all were of African descent. By 1930, that's down to 300 because property's just been sold out from under folks. In the '50s, you had Charles Frazier that comes in. He revitalizes the South End, and makes the south end of the island the place to come and vacation. And the rest is history. In the mid 20th century, Native Islanders, the Gullah population on the island, Black people on the island refer to themselves as Native Islanders, they own 3,500 acres of property on Hilton Head. And at this present moment it's now under 800 acres of property that they actually own.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What leads to the land loss, and then when do we really begin to see that?
Ahmad Ward: Well, early 20th century, it starts with Loomis and Thorne coming in and buying up all that property to make into this refuge. But then it accelerates late 20th century, specifically after the island becomes a municipality, which is not until 1983. Heirs property and the lack of wills and deeds, that's the main reason you see this land loss. And so you've got people who have had land in their family for three, four, five generations, and now it's gone because there was one brother, one sister who sold to somebody who showed them more money than they'd ever seen in their entire life. You have these parcels of land that are worth, you know, a million dollars, but somebody's dangling $250,000 in front of folks who had never seen real money. So they sell.
Ahmad Ward: And so what happens, is the person from outside of the area who's bought this, now they have paperwork and they can force the rest of these people off of the property. Also because people have moved in and they're building these multimillion dollar homes, the property taxes for their neighbors have gone through the roof, and now they can no longer afford to pay the taxes on their property. So it goes up at tax sale, and people have been able to swoop in and take it away.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What was driving and continues to drive the land developers to purchase the land on Hilton Head?
Ahmad Ward: It's a resort island. Hilton Head sees 2.6 million tourists a year. The amount of money can almost not be calculated. And so developers are coming in to build hotels, to build amenities, to attract all of that tourist money that's coming in. That's why people would go to great lengths trying to secure land because they can get that money right back. And most of the open land on the island right now belongs to Native Islanders.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you say a little bit about the effort on the part of the federal government to preserve historic African-American sites of significance that are connected to Reconstruction?
Ahmad Ward: Well, I would definitely say one of the key things that is helping our efforts out has to be the establishment of the National Reconstruction Era Monument—now park, but it started as a monument—by President Obama right before he left office. That has really directly helped Mitchelville's development, because it placed a premium on the importance of Reconstruction. Your average student is not getting any long history on Reconstruction in school. But what I saw that monument do was elevate Reconstruction to the forefront in this area. And so the people who are doing the kind of work that I'm doing saw an opportunity. And then there's also other people who—and I'll be delicate—who are not doing the work that I'm doing, who also saw opportunities to capitalize on this newfound spotlight on Reconstruction. You see people really pushing to get what they believe are important aspects of Reconstruction out for the general public to come and see.
Ahmad Ward: But when you talk about Reconstruction, you got to be prepared to talk about the sabotage of Reconstruction, that's at least how I—these are Ahmad's words. [laughs] You know, I freely say that Reconstruction was sabotaged by the compromise back in 1876, 1877, or else who knows where we would be? Like, Mitchelville should have been a template for all freedman towns.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right.
Ahmad Ward: That would have been established if Reconstruction could have been allowed to continue. But of course, when Reconstruction is bombed, the Black codes are almost immediate. And then Jim Crow just pops up right out of that. That's a natural progression. And so we sacrificed a hundred years of positive social growth, and so that takes us until the 1960s to get rights that were supposed to be put in place during Reconstruction.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.
Ahmad Ward: When we have people who are actively trying to erase the telling of some of these sites, you've got to counterbalance that notion with facts to show, no, this is precisely what we need to be talking about, because this really shows the American condition. I know people are scared of that, but if we want to really understand where we live, you can really see it in these African-American sites, especially these sites that are tied into enslavement, because it gives a full story of the country.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mitchelville, Hilton Head, South Carolina, where we can examine freedom and democracy and citizenship and opportunity, because this is the place where freedom began. Brother Ahmad Ward, thank you so much for joining us, man. And most importantly, thank you so much for the wonderful work that you are doing to preserve this story, preserve this history, and make sure we all know it.
Ahmad Ward: My pleasure, sir. For more information folks, go to ExploreMitchelville.org. Mitchel has one L.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ahmad Ward is the executive director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, located on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He is the former vice president of education for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. He also currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of African-American Museums.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Masur and Mr. Ward for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding, and Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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