Teaching Activities (Free)

When the Impossible Suddenly Became Possible: A Reconstruction Mixer

Teaching Activity. By Adam Sanchez and Nqobile Mthethwa. 25 pages.
A mixer role play that explores the connections between different social movements during Reconstruction.

Time Periods: 19th Century, Civil War Era: 1850 - 1864, Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Organizing, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery

Frances Harper, William Sylvis, Isaac Myers, and John Roy Lynch are a few of the people featured in the role play.

Shortly after hearing in 1865 that she and others on her Florida plantation were no longer enslaved, Frances told a friend what she thought their future might look like: “This time next year all the white folks will be at work in the fields, and the plantations and the houses, and everything in them will be turned over to us to do with as we please.” While her fantasy didn’t become a reality, something remarkable did.

Without saying anything to their former owner, on New Year’s Day 1866, every freed slave on the plantation left.

The ability of newly freed people to imagine their former owners serving them, or to walk off a plantation en masse in a society that had heavily policed Black movement, reveals the possibilities of a period where something that had only a few years prior seemed unthinkable was now a fact of life. Because, as historian David Roediger writes in his book Seizing Freedom, “If anything seemed impossible in the 1850s political universe, it was the immediate, unplanned, and uncompensated emancipation of four million slaves.”

When this once seemingly impossible fate became a reality, it democratized and revolutionized U.S. society. The sense that the impossible could be made possible by the organization of oppressed people to fight against their oppression had implications far beyond the struggle against slavery. As Roediger documents, between 1865 and 1869, a series of “war-and-emancipation inspired insurgencies . . . raised the possibilities for something like a 19th-century Rainbow Coalition, seeking to bring together the nation’s aggrieved.”

But ultimately racism and sexism tore these movements apart, and the consequences left Black people few allies to fight the insurgent white supremacists that one by one overthrew Reconstruction governments in the South.

This mixer aims to draw out many of these lessons for students by introducing them to individuals in the various social movements, including the labor movement, women’s rights, and voting rights movements that followed the Civil War and their attempts to build alliances with one another. In the mixer, each student takes on the role of a different person involved in the social movements of the time.