Social Studies

What’s the History of Reconstruction? In Many States, Students Don’t Get the Whole Picture

By Sarah Schwartz — January 12, 2022 8 min read
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In recent political debates over how to teach U.S. history, the subject of slavery has loomed large.

Long-documented omissions and misrepresentations in lessons have left students with incomplete understandings of the period. As some teachers have adopted new resources that center the experiences of Black Americans and trace slavery’s impacts through to the present day, conservative politicians and pundits have pushed back against narratives that make these connections.

But a new report makes the case that the period immediately following the Civil War and the end of slavery is getting overlooked and distorted in history classes, too. And the consequences, it argues, are no less significant.

This period—Reconstruction—marked an enormous advancement of, and backlash to, Black Americans’ civil rights, political power, and economic standing. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments came with the promise of equal participation in American life. Formerly enslaved people ran for and won political office, built social and civic institutions, and fought for economic independence.

But that promise wasn’t fulfilled. White politicians and communities mounted a fierce and violent opposition to this progress, both limiting legal rights and terrorizing Black communities.

The Ku Klux Klan formed during this period. States began to pass Jim Crow laws that codified segregation. The backlash to Reconstruction shaped the next century of history through to the Civil Rights Movement—and many historians and political scientists say that issues at the heart of the era, like voting rights and definitions of citizenship, are still central to modern politics.

But a sweeping new report from the Zinn Education Project, a progressive organization that provides lessons and professional development for teachers, finds that state standards muddy the significance of Reconstruction, omit key understandings, or in some cases, promote debunked historical narratives.

The report, written by a team of doctoral candidates and history researchers with an advisory panel of nearly 20 historians and social scientists, examines state standards and examples of district-level curricula. It also includes responses from a teacher survey on teaching Reconstruction.

This analysis takes a comprehensive look at how states handle the subject, offering state-by-state breakdowns as well as overall findings. The organization, which takes historian Howard Zinn’s approach to teaching the past from the perspective of people whose stories have been marginalized or ignored in dominant narratives, also hopes it will serve as a call to action.

“If states had better standards about Reconstruction that emphasized Black agency and that revealed the white supremacist backlash that took down Reconstruction, that would provide more support for educators who want to teach the truth about this incredible time period that held immense promise,” said Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher in Seattle and an organizer with the Zinn Education Project.

“Instead, what’s often taught around the country is that Reconstruction failed. A lot of textbooks and state standards ask students to analyze the failure of Reconstruction, without pointing out that it didn’t just fail, it was attacked.”

Muddy definitions, false narratives can confuse students

The report finds that many standards don’t provide clear and consistent definitions of what Reconstruction was. Only one state—Massachusetts—mentions white supremacy as a cause of the backlash to the expansion of civil rights and Black political and economic power.

Just as some instructional materials on the Civil War still promote lost-cause narratives that cast the Confederacy in a positive light, some of the state standards that address Reconstruction promote skewed historical frameworks. More than 15 states ask students to evaluate whether Reconstruction was a success or a failure, a framing that the authors say casts the freedom and enfranchisement of formerly enslaved people as a “reckless” and ill-advised experiment.

“For most of the 20th century, white supremacists often cited ‘failure’ as an overarching inevitability of Reconstruction and a reason to deny Black people full citizenship in the decades that followed,” the report reads.

And most states focus exclusively on Reconstruction’s impact in the South, even though the expansion of voting rights and the prevalence of white mob violence had impacts outside of the Southern states.

The report also argues that states take too much of a “top-down” approach to teaching the era, focusing more on politics and policies than the grassroots organizing or accomplishments of Black Americans.

“This is an erstwhile problem in the way that we present history of all ages,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Zimmerman, who was not involved in the writing of the report, said he agreed with the conclusion that Reconstruction is often poorly taught and that many lessons are still influenced by narratives rooted in white supremacy.

The omission of social history in Reconstruction is especially problematic, he said, because it disproportionately minimizes Black experience and agency in the era. It also obscures the reality of widespread extralegal violence, he said.

Even as the report calls for different state standards on Reconstruction, its authors remain ambivalent about the institution of state standards as a whole, and their connection to standardized testing.

“The [Zinn Education Project is] very much on the left, and standards have been coded as a conservative thing. So the report doesn’t want to [deal] with that,” Zimmerman said.

But in pointing out the failures in state standards, he argued, the report underscores their importance in setting instructional agendas. In order to have a standard of accuracy and rigor for teaching Reconstruction, “you need to have standards on teaching Reconstruction,” Zimmerman said.

Changing standards is a heated political battle

Outside of the content concerns raised, the report also identifies one major logistical challenge to teaching Reconstruction: It generally falls at the very end, or the very beginning, of a school year.

Eighth grade courses generally cover the first “half” of U.S. History, from colonial America through to the end of the Civil War. Ninth grade courses pick up from there. Reconstruction, teachers said in the Zinn survey, can sometimes get lost in that transition.

This was the case for Seth Billingsley, an 8th and 9th grade U.S. History teacher in Baltimore, who was quoted in the report. In Maryland, 8th grade standards include Reconstruction at the end of the year. “I’ll be completely honest, I did not get to it at all [last year], because the virtual learning environment made it really difficult,” he said, in an interview with Education Week.

With his 9th graders this fall, he started the school year with Reconstruction. He and his students talked about what freedom meant to formerly enslaved people, that some of the promises of Reconstruction were fulfilled, and that there were then attempts to limit those new freedoms in the form of Black Codes, forced labor of prisoners, and the rise of Jim Crow laws.

Billingsley likes the district curriculum that Baltimore provides on Reconstruction, and has used pieces of it in his classes—like a lesson in which students analyze the rise of Jim Crow laws alongside a passage from “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by legal scholar Michelle Alexander. He’s tried to get students thinking about “echoes of this history in our current society,” he said.

That’s one of the recommendations put forth in the Zinn Education report: addressing the legacies of Reconstruction today.

The document comes with a host of other suggestions for states and districts, like including clear definitions in standards, emphasizing actions taken by African Americans, requiring students to study the Freedmen’s Bureau, explicitly calling out white supremacy, and adjusting timelines so that Reconstruction doesn’t fall into the gap between grades.

Understanding Reconstruction is especially important in this current political climate, Hagopian said, in which he sees echoes of the battles fought during the era.

“You can’t understand the riots and insurrection and attacks on the Capitol on January 6th without understanding where white supremacist organizing came from,” he said.

“When you see people carrying the Confederate flag through our nation’s Capitol, you have to understand how the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of the Civil War was a reaction to the progress that was happening in Reconstruction.”

But many parents and politicians don’t want children taught that there is a throughline between those two events, or more broadly, that the effects of slavery and Reconstruction have any relevance in the present day.

In both Louisiana and Mississippi, battles are ongoing over revisions to state social studies standards that would change how the documents address historical oppression and discrimination. Members of the public have commented on draft standards in Louisiana, claiming that more attention to these issues would sow division among students.

Teachers may face less pushback—and foster more historical inquiry—if they provide students with information and context and then focus on what conclusions students can draw themselves, Zimmerman said. “For the report to say, connect the threat on civil rights during Reconstruction to attacks on civil rights today, I think this should be phrased in terms of a question and not an assertion.”

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