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.
Role plays are such an excellent way of engaging students in learning. When the Impossible Became Possible: A Reconstruction Mixer allows students to interact with both the content and one another to further their learning. I chose to do the lesson at the end of our unit on Reconstruction. Students had a good basis of understanding, but only from the newly freedmen and women’s perspective. This activity revealed to the students, as well as myself, the new possibilities that many Americans recognized after emancipation.
During our debriefing discussion, some students were struck by the narrow thinking behind many activists who placed, as one student mentioned, “priorities of justice,” believing that the nation could only have justice for one group at a time. Another student even mentioned how easy it was for many of the people involved in social activism to lose site of the bigger picture of “justice for all,” refuse the collaboration and solidarity of others and allow racism and sexism to derail their own movements. One group of students connected past learning to debunk this myth by mentioning how the Women’s Liberation Movement, Chicano Movement, American Indian Movement and African-American Civil Rights Movements all co-existed and moved towards social justice during the same decades of the 20th century.
I was impressed with the connections that this activity allowed for my students to make. It was a perfect lesson to include in our study of Reconstruction.
I used When the Impossible Suddenly Became Possible last year and LOVED it. The stories the students learned in the mixer brought to life how extraordinary this time was and not just something to brush past on our way to our unit on the Second Industrial Revolution. It segued us into that unit as well as into the Great Migration. This curriculum led to excellent “push/pull” conversations, too.
The most powerful story for me was that of Benjamin Montgomery who actually bought Jefferson Davis’, the President of the Confederacy, plantation! What a man! What a story!
For the mixer, I had my students create name badges and they put their interview sheets on a clip board. We sat outside at tables and when one interview was over they raised their hands and moved to a new table to hear a new story. I participated as well and loved interacting with my students.
When we finished, we went inside and each table group discussed what they learned. Then we had a class discussion about what surprised us, what inspired us, and what upset us. Back in their table groups (of 3 or 4) they connected what they learned from the activity to other themes in history and/or today. A second class discussion led to topics The Trail of Tears, immigration, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, and police brutality. They even added in Supreme Court decisions and first amendment rights!
This activity came in the last month of the school year for my eighth grade class and WOW. I was so impressed by the higher-order-thinking it facilitated and inspired by how aware these kids are to what is right with America, and what is still so very wrong.
The classroom textbook does not really highlight the successes of Reconstruction and focuses on the backlash to this progress. Reconstructing the South: A Role Play successfully revealed to my students the problems that needed to be addressed during Reconstruction. In particular, students were interested in the questions about what should happen to the land and if there should be any consequences for Confederate leaders.
The second Reconstruction lesson, the Reconstruction Mixer, was also very successful. It showed students the social organizing that happened during Reconstruction. The question of addressing Black rights and women’s rights got students thinking about the challenges of organizing, and how difficult it is to make radical changes when people do not agree on issues. I like the diversity of the people included in the role, and that there were several people I had not heard of before. Students enjoyed the mixer format. We also did the Election of 1860 Role Play and this mixer was a nice change of routine.
I decided to spend more time on Reconstruction than during the Civil War because of these great lessons available. I think it’s important to show the post-war progress after learning about the cruel economic system of enslavement. I would use it again in a class, for sure.
Read more teacher comments about lessons on Reconstruction.
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“When the Impossible Suddenly Became Possible: A Reconstruction Mixer” is one of the lessons offered as part of our campaign to Teach Reconstruction.