Jeffrey Rosen, the CEO of the National Constitution Center, is the kind of guy who gets as wound up talking about things like the 15th Amendment as a Phillies fan might get after a Rhys Hoskins walk-off homer, but nothing gets him as excited about the center’s new permanent exhibit on Civil War and Reconstruction as when he shows off a simple box wrapped in bright green paper.
“This in some ways is the most moving artifact — the first time that African Americans voted in Virginia!” Rosen enthused, gesturing at the separate-but-equal (since whites continued to use an ornate wood ballot box) relic from 1867. It is literally a cereal box — there’s still an ad for Jamaican ginger on the back — but, Rosen explained, “the people who made it wanted to dignify it by creating this beautiful green paper” to signify the very first black votes.
The green box spotlights the feel-good narrative that my generation of baby boomers — and presumably today’s kids, to the extent that they learn American history and civics at all — learned about the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves in the mid-1860s. But right at this very moment, the 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper — performed with amazing grace by actor Nastassja Baset Whitman — strolled into the exhibit space, stepped up to podium and dropped a truth bomb from 1875 about what else happened in the decade after Appomattox.
“And yet, with all the victories and triumphs which freedom and justice have won in this country, I do not believe there is another civilized nation under heaven where there are half as many people who have been brutally and shamefully murdered, with or without impunity, as in this Republic within the last ten years,” she said. Harper’s speech — delivered here in Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery — focused on how far America still lagged in delivering racial equality.
The murders she referenced were committed by the night riders of the Ku Klux Klan and by white rioters like those in Mississippi who on one day of infamy — Dec. 7, 1874 — killed 75 to 300 blacks while forcing an African American sheriff from office, or those in New Orleans who in 1866 killed 44 African Americans in disputes over voting and the so-called “black codes,” which were laws that made it easy to imprison newly freed slaves or force them into labor.
“And who cares?” asked the aggrieved Harper in a ghostly voice from 144 years ago. “Where is the public opinion that has scorched with red hot indignation the cowardly murderers of Vicksburg and Louisiana?”
Who cares, indeed ... then, or now? The echoes of what Harper called out here in Philly in 1875 — the run-up to decades of unconscionable American apartheid known as Jim Crow — reverberate across today’s America, whether in the new wave of voter suppression laws taking hold in much of the country, the mass incarceration of blacks that hinges on a few words in 1865′s 13th Amendment, or a president determined to preserve a regressive “way of life” much like Southerners did in the 1870s.
We have a long way to go, but in the Trump Era, more and more Americans are starting to get it. They get that while there was undoubtedly profound moral courage during the 1860s, from Abraham Lincoln and antislavery icons like Pennsylvania’s Thaddeus Stevens to the thousands of blacks who escaped bondage to fight for the Union side, that led to a remarkable victory in ending slavery, the real story of the Civil War era is less triumph and more like, triumph followed by a stunning betrayal. The fact that Southerners called their role in this betrayal “Redemption” is beyond Orwellian.
The National Constitution Center and exhibition developer Elena Popchock deserve a lot of credit for spotlighting both the idealistic promise but also the hard truths of the Reconstruction era (and if you haven’t been to the NCC, this neat new, permanent exhibit is the perfect excuse to get yourself down there), but others are also now telling the reality how the stone of racism proved too heavy for 19th century Americans to roll away. The historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. contributed to the recent outstanding PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War and authored a book to set the record straight. A recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik captured this revisionist zeitgeist: “How the South Won The Civil War.”
Gates recently told WHYY’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air that watching the white political backlash of the 2010s is what inspired his renewed interest in the post-Civil War era. “And I realized that what we were seeing, what we were witnessing, was Reconstruction redux — the period of black optimism and black hope, when we thought that — you know, even for a time, scholars fantasized that we were at the end of race and racism. You remember that, at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency? All of that was followed by an ‘alt-right’ rollback and the rise of white supremacy, and that’s exactly what happened in the period immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1877, when black people experienced more freedom and more rights than at any other time in American history.”
What infuriates me is that in the schoolhouses of the 1960s and ’70s, I learned next to nothing about Reconstruction or the Jim Crow segregation that followed it. I guess the truth didn’t quite fit the American Exceptionalism spin that was part of the Cold War. What little I do remember is learning that Northern troops hung around the South for a few years, that sleazy “carpetbaggers” from the North tried to take advantage (why we were taught this pro-Confederate talking point, I have no idea) and there was this “crazy” period where blacks even won elections.
Then the troops left and America got back to “normal” — if you think of “normal” as African Americans not voting and held back by the serfdom of the sharecropper economy while whites erected granite monuments to their heroes of “the Lost Cause” (that cause being violent rebellion against the U.S. government, on behalf of white supremacy.)
We didn’t spend one second learning that most of the roughly 2,000 black office holders from the 1860s and ’70s were eloquent and courageous fighters for the American ideal like Mississippi’s Hiram Rhodes Revels or Joseph Rainey, the first black elected to the U.S. House, from South Carolina. And I wasn’t until I was a middle-aged adult that I learned about the Compromise of 1877, in which the Democrats let Republicans keep the White House in a disputed presidential election in return for pulling those troops out of the South and teeing it up for the Jim Crow era. Arguably, this sellout changes America for bad as much as the Emancipation Proclamation had changed it for good.
The lies of omission that our teachers committed mattered then — and now it’s just as critical that today’s Americans finally learn the real history. There are several reasons for this. One is — as Professor Gates stated more eloquently — that the proper context of seeing the fight against white supremacy as a sad constant of our national story, and not as this thing that was beaten down in 1865 and 1965 and 2008 only to mysteriously pop back up, helps to gird us for the difficult task at hand.
What’s more, understanding the struggle for freedom and civil rights that led to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, only to see that how that power was whittled away, is critical for understanding the reactionary culture that in 2019 is waging war across on multiple fronts, from the effort to control women’s bodies in the states of the Old Confederacy to the ultimate goal of Trump henchman Stephen Miller to somehow rob the kids of immigrants the birthright citizenship guaranteed in the 14th Amendment.
But there’s something else about the end of Reconstruction that very much dovetails what’s happening right now, and that is the matter of political will. The horrible things that became entrenched between 1877 and 1900 — segregated drinking fountains and swimming pools, poll taxes and literacy tests on Election Day — didn’t happen in a vacuum. They happened because well-intentioned people — especially political leaders — lacked courage or just got too lazy to keep fighting for what was right, or they chose short-term self-interest (like keeping the White House in 1877) over moral principles. And because a reactionary Supreme Court picked the backward “old ways” over civil rights.
Does any of that sound familiar?