National Report on the Teaching of Reconstruction

The Zinn Education Project will release a national report, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Teach Myths About Reconstruction,” in January of 2022 as part of our Teach Reconstruction campaign.

This report represents a comprehensive effort by the Zinn Education Project to understand Reconstruction’s place in state social studies standards across the United States, examine the nature and extent of the barriers to teaching effective Reconstruction history, and make focused recommendations for improvement.

Using our own Reconstruction standards as a guide, we examined course requirements, frameworks, and support for teachers. We also include stories about creative efforts by districts and/or individual teachers in each state to teach outside the textbook about Reconstruction.

Zinn Education Project Reconstruction Standards

The Zinn Education Project created and rooted our assessment of the state of Reconstruction education in the set of teaching and learning standards below.  These standards were developed in collaboration with scholars and teachers.

The foundational premise of any set of teaching and learning standards for the Reconstruction era should be Black people’s agency, highlighting both what Black people did (to end slavery, engage in politics, build institutions, etc.) and what goals, beliefs, and motivations undergirded those actions. Descriptions of the violent backlash to Reconstruction should emphasize how white supremacist ideology drove the effort to overturn multiracial democracy in the South and shaped the political and economic development of the entire nation after the Civil War. 

In schools throughout the United States, students should: 

1. Examine what Reconstruction reveals about the meaning of freedom to Black people.

 For example, lessons should examine how formerly enslaved people exercised autonomy over self, family/kin, community; organized and mobilized around issues of land, labor, production, education, and worship; cultivated joy and creativity; sought the civil and political rights most critical to their freedom; and conceived of that freedom through traditions of resistance formed long before emancipation. 

2. Know that control of land was of paramount importance to formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction, but widespread land reform and Black landownership was systematically denied by federal and state governments.

For example, students should examine the Savannah Colloquy and Special Field Order No. 15, the Homestead Act v. Southern Homestead Act, President Johnson’s “restoration” of land to Confederates, and the rise of the Black Codes.

3. Know that the struggle by freedpeople to control their own labor during Reconstruction was a source of conflict between freedpeople and economic elites, North and South.

For example, students should examine the Freedmen’s Bureau’s role in overseeing labor contracts between the formerly enslaved and white landowners, Northern elites’ plan to restore the Southern plantation economy, and the racial politics of labor organizing, North and South.

4. Examine the Freedmen’s Bureau to determine what it reveals about the needs and desires of freedpeople at the end of the war, its successes and failures, and how and why it was dismantled.

5. Examine the modes of mass political participation of Black people during Reconstruction.

For example, students should investigate the Union Leagues, state constitutional and political conventions, voter registration and education campaigns, press outlets, self-defense and self-help organizations, and schools and churches.

6. Examine the advances for democracy and racial justice made due to the mass political participation by Black people during Reconstruction.

For example, students can investigate African American lawmakers and officeholders elected at all levels of government; passage of laws at the state level providing tax-funded public schools, fair labor contracts, universal male suffrage, the right to divorce, the right of Black people to hold office and serve on juries; support for and mobilization around Radical Republican efforts in Congress: Reconstruction Acts, Enforcement Acts, and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

7. Know that white supremacist terrorism stalled and reversed many of the significant advances made by Black people and their allies during Reconstruction, and shaped the politics, policies, and outcomes of the era.

For example, students should analyze different manifestations of racism in the Democratic and Republican parties, South and North, and in labor relations, South and North; how Black institutions and symbols of Black achievement were undermined with racist terror and violence; how violence (vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan) functioned to achieve the white supremacist goals of the Southern Democratic Party and the rise of Jim Crow apartheid.

8. Learn how elites in the North and the Republican Party prioritized their own economic interests by retracting support for the federal government’s role in protecting the advances made by Black people and their allies during Reconstruction.

For example, students should analyze how Northern industrialists successfully extended their dominance into the South — including Northern railroads acquiring massive tracts of public land — which shaped their interest in maintaining status quo labor relations; and how the 1873 economic depression fueled labor activism and strikes, incentivizing Northern industrialists to join Southern “redeemers” in a politics rooted in the fear of a revolt from below. 

9. Identify enduring positive legacies of the Reconstruction era in their own lives and the current historical moment.

For example, students should examine Reconstruction-era schools and churches; the rich tradition of Black politics; the 14th and 15th Amendments, which continue to be the basis for expansion of and defense of civil rights; Reconstruction as a model of grassroots activism and participatory, multiracial democracy.

10. Identify enduring negative legacies of the Reconstruction era in their own lives and the current historical moment.

For example, students should examine the United States’ failure to award reparations for slavery; the failure of the federal government to endorse and support the most transformative promises of Reconstruction: land reform, universal suffrage, and civil rights; and the persistence of Jim Crow racism at all levels of society (policing and prisons, disparities in health, wealth, housing, employment, and education).

It is our hope that states and districts will adopt these guidelines for their own educational standards, curricula, and professional development. In so doing, they will be better equipped to teach students the true history of Reconstruction, help students understand its significance and make connections to the present day. And they will empower teachers to educate their students and themselves about ongoing Reconstruction scholarship.

Open Letter from Scholars

Related to the report is an open letter from scholars of U.S. history about the need for school districts to devote more time and resources to the Reconstruction era, signed by more than 180 scholars to date, including Eric Foner, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Isabel Wilkerson, Ashley Farmer, Bryan Stevenson, Robin Kelley, Kidada E. Williams, Steven Hahn, Ibram X. Kendi, and Kate Masur.

Educator Survey

As we finalize the report, we continue to solicit stories from teachers and other staff at the state, district, or classroom level. We estimate that the survey should take about 10 minutes to complete and respondents receive a subscription to Rethinking Schools magazine.

Teacher & Other School Staff Survey
Staff & District Leader Survey

Credits

The lead researchers and writers for the report are Dr. Ana Rosado, Dr. Gideon Cohn-Postar, and Mimi Eisen with the Zinn Education Project team, and contributions by Joshua Strayhorn, Kristina Williams, and Reina Henderson. The Teach Reconstruction campaign advisors provided substantive feedback.

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