Reconstruction is a challenge for many teachers for many reasons. For many of us, this unit falls at the semester point or at the end of the year, resulting in a unit that is often rushed and sometimes omitted altogether. It is not "exciting" in the way that the Civil War is exciting. And the end of the semester or school year comes with final exams, assemblies, anticipation of the holidays or summer vacation, which detract from the seriousness of the topic. But with the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, careful consideration to the teaching of Reconstruction takes on an added urgency.
Perhaps the biggest problem with teaching Reconstruction is best explained by Eric Foner, one of the preeminent historians of the topic. I heard him speak last fall at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and during the Q&A after his lecture, he summed up what I think is the biggest problem. To paraphrase, he said it is imperative to teach, but difficult to determine the emphasis. There are the positive aspects which include the temporary success of African Americans in politics and the permanent, revolutionary change in our Constitution with the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. And there are the negative aspects which is the failure of Reconstruction to prevent the rise of Jim Crow and the unfinished business that we are all living with today.
I think I could handle that, but then Foner quoted the American writer William Howell Deans, who said, "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."
Yes, I thought, that is exactly the problem. Clearly the protests regarding the killing of George Floyd demonstrate that Reconstruction did not have a happy ending. Reconstruction did not reconstruct America. Many of us as teachers are guilty of craving a happy ending. Especially if we are ending our school year with this topic.
I have a serviceable DBQ on the success and failures of Reconstruction. It asks students to wrestle with this tug-of-war between the positive and negative aspects of Reconstruction. Perhaps this partly solves the "problem" of Reconstruction: acknowledge fully that there are both positive and negative aspects. It was an imperfect revolution that left unfinished business. And let your students reach those conclusions on their own, with the guidance of well-chosen primary and secondary sources.
HOW TO INTRODUCE OR CONCLUDE A UNIT ON RECONSTRUCTION
Recently, I had to teach a one day lesson on Reconstruction. (Yeah, I know. Weird. Long, irrelevant story). I decided to introduce it in a broad way by asking students to consider what is meant by the terms "freedom" and "equality."
I wanted it to be mostly a discussion, guided by these slides (and at right). I also wanted to have students wrestle with a primary source to consider the issue I explained above about success and failures of Reconstruction. It also contains a 2 minute video clip, which I like as it sets up the problem of Jim Crow. If you are using this as a lesson just to introduce Reconstruction, you'd probably want to hold off on that video and the 2 slides that follow and simply conclude the lesson with slide #12. In that case, you'd probably move on to a lesson on the Freedman's Bureau that addresses education and some of the other kinds of equality (see this document for that, or the middle school version).
Reconstruction is part of the 7th grade curriculum at the school where I teach. I teach 8th grade, which picks up after that. Because of both Covid 19 and the events of late May/June, it seems like a 1-3 day "refresher" on Reconstruction might be in order for the start of this year with my 8th graders.
A FEW SELECTED RESOURCES:
- See my previous posts on Reconstruction here and here. There, you will find the link to my "serviceable DBQ" and a helpful (even though slightly outdated) resource from Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University.
- PBS 4 hour documentary with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
- Wish you took a course on Reconstruction in college? Well, now you can. See this course from Yale University Professor David Blight (another renowned historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction). If you click on "sessions" you can find the lectures on Reconstruction and listen to them. Or read a summary in this article from The Atlantic.
- Speaking of The Atlantic, check out its compiled list of 163 years of writing on race and racism in the United States, starting with an article from 1857 (when the magazine was founded) to the present moment.
- Facing History's unit on The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy
- Scene on Radio's podcast by John Biewen with Chenjerai Kumanyika continues to impress me. If you haven't listened to Season 2, "Seeing White," check it out. Season 4, "The Land that Never Has Been Yet" is about democracy, and there is an episode on Reconstruction called The Second Revolution.