Teaching Guides

Who Killed Reconstruction? A Trial Role Play

Teaching Activity. By Adam Sanchez. 2022. Rethinking Schools
A role play about the demise of Reconstruction that helps students get beyond the question “Was Reconstruction a success or failure?”
Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Reconstruction
Reconstruction montage

Art by Nate Kitch

One of the most common questions teachers ask at the end of a unit on the Reconstruction era is “Was Reconstruction a success or a failure?” And it’s no accident.

State and school district standards across the country ask students to, in the words of one Texas state standard, “describe and analyze the successes and failures of Reconstruction.” Textbooks and curriculum follow suit. In their “Topic Closer” on Reconstruction, U.S. History Interactive, published by Savvas Learning Company — formerly Pearson K12 Learning, asks students to write on what they have learned about the “successes and failures” of “Reconstruction measures.”

However, the debate about the “successes and failures” of Reconstruction was framed by the racist and discredited Dunning School. This group of historians argued that Reconstruction “failed” due to the faults of Black people. As Dunning School historian William Watson Davis wrote in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, “The attempt to found a commonwealth government upon the votes of an ignorant negro electorate proved a failure. It was an injustice to blacks and whites.” . . .

The Dunning School interpretation of Reconstruction remained the dominant portrayal of the era until the Civil Rights Movement forced a reexamination of Black history in the 1960s. Yet despite decades of new scholarship on Reconstruction, K–12 curriculum is still too often stuck in a framework shaped by the Dunning School. As the Zinn Education Project report on Reconstruction state standards argues:

The “successes and failures” framing often neglects to ask “for whom?” and encourages inaccurate and white supremacist Reconstruction education today. It undercuts the era’s on-the-ground movements, disconnecting the actions of people from the consequences of history. It belies the radical possibilities, unparalleled civil rights progress, and devastating white supremacist terror that are all so characteristic of Reconstruction. It assumes a sense of passivity, often asking students to consider only elites or vague monolithic entities like entire states or bodies of government as primary actors building toward inevitable outcomes. In so doing, this framing separates the genuine achievements of Reconstruction from the coalitions of Black people who made them possible and the racist dismantlers who deliberately rolled them back.

For several years, I’ve been ending my unit on Reconstruction with a better question: “Who — and/or what — Killed Reconstruction?” Most textbook accounts point the finger exclusively at the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist terrorists who violently attacked Black people and their allies throughout the South. With my Rethinking Schools colleagues Bill Bigelow and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, I co-wrote a trial role play that encourages students to take a broader view of Reconstruction’s demise looking at the role of the major political parties and their wealthy backers, the racism of poor white people, and the systems of white supremacy and capitalism.

The trial begins from the premise that the death of Reconstruction was a terrible crime with disastrous consequences for the United States and the world.

Continue reading this article with the trial role play lesson at Rethinking Schools.

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