Black Reconstruction

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Black Reconstruction in America is a history by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. Du Bois argued with previous accounts of the Reconstruction era of the South after its defeat in the American Civil War, particularly that of the Dunning School. He based his approach on an economic analysis of classes during Reconstruction and documentation from contemporary records. He noted that Black and White laborers were divided after the Civil War along the lines of race, and did not unite against the white propertied class. He believed this was a failure of Reconstruction that enabled the white Democrats to regain control of state legislatures, pass Jim Crow laws, and disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Du Bois' historical scholarship and use of primary source data research on the postwar political economy of the former Confederate States’ were ground-breaking.[citation needed] He systematically analyzed the political economy of the Reconstruction period of the southern states, based on data collected during the period. He presented extensive data about the composition of state legislatures, the state budgets, bills passed, and debts accrued and for what purpose. He noted major achievements, such as establishing public education in the South for the first time, founding of charitable institutions to care for all citizens, and investment in public infrastructure.

In chapter five, Du Bois argues that the decision by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working during the war was an example of a General Strike. He argues that the Civil War was largely fought over labor issues, with the North supporting free labor. Dubois’ research showed that the post-emancipation South did not degenerate into economic or political chaos. He contrasted the efforts of the elite planter class to retain control and the violence committed by paramilitary groups trying to suppress black voting and restore white supremacy.

He documented that these Reconstruction governments were the first to establish public health departments to promote public health and sanitation, and to combat the spread of epidemic diseases. He noted that after Democrats regained power, they did not change the Reconstruction constitutions for nearly a quarter century. When they did pass laws to impose racial segregation and Jim Crow, they maintained some support of public education, public health and welfare laws, and constitutional principles that benefited more of the citizens.

Critical reception[edit]

The work was not well received by critics and historians at the time, when historians of the Dunning School associated with Columbia University dominated published histories of Reconstruction.[citation needed] Some critics rejected Du Bois' critique of other historians writing about the freedmen's role during Reconstruction. Du Bois lists a number of books and writers that he believed misrepresented the Reconstruction period. He identified those which he believed were particularly racist or ill-informed works. Du Bois thought that certain historians were maintaining the "southern white fairytale"[1] instead of accurately chronicling the events and key figures of Reconstruction.

In the 1960s and through the next decades, a new generation of historians began to re-evaluate Du Bois' work, as well as works of the early 20th century by African-American historians Alrutheus A. Taylor, Francis Simkins, and Robert Woody.[2] They developed new research and came to conclusions that revised the historiography of Reconstruction. This work emphasized black people's agency in their search for freedom and the era's radical policy changes that began to provide for general welfare, rather than the interests of the wealthy planter class.[2][3]

Scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s tempered some of these claims by highlighting continuities in the political goals of white politicians before and during Reconstruction. Du Bois' emphasis on the revolutionary character of Reconstruction was affirmed by Eric Foner's landmark book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.[4] By the early twenty-first century, Du Bois' Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as "the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography."[5]

"Reconstruction and Its Benefits"[edit]

Du Bois' first essay on the topic was "Reconstruction and Its Benefits," delivered to the American Historical Association on 30 December 1909 in New York City. Du Bois was then a professor at Atlanta University. Albert Bushnell Hart, one of his former professors at Harvard University, sent him money to attend the conference. William Archibald Dunning, leader of what was called the Dunning School that developed at Columbia University, heard Du Bois' presentation and praised his paper. It was published in the July 1910 issue of The American Historical Review, but had little influence at the time.

A view had collected around James Pike's work, The Prostrate State (1878), written shortly after Reconstruction ended. He contended there were no benefits from Reconstruction. Woodrow Wilson's Division and Reunion, 1829 - 1889 (1893), and James Ford Rhodes' History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1906) denigrated African-American contributions during that period, reflecting attitudes of white supremacy in a period when most blacks and many poor whites had been disfranchised across the South. James Wilford Garner's Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901), Walter L. Fleming's Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), Thomas Staples' Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862-1874 (1923), and Charles William Ramsdell's Reconstruction in Texas (1910) were works by Dunning followers, most of whom had positions in history at Southern universities. They tended to see only failure in Reconstruction.


  1. ^ Black Reconstruction in America, p. 715
  2. ^ a b Foner, Eric (1 December 1982). "Reconstruction Revisited". Reviews in American History 10 (4): 82–100 [83]. doi:10.2307/2701820. ISSN 0048-7511. JSTOR 2701820. 
  3. ^ "During the civil rights era, however, it became apparent that Du Bois's scholarship, despite some limitations, had been ahead of its time." Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser; Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xx. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6. 
  4. ^ Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser; Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xix–xxi. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6. 
  5. ^ "W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1935/1998) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 is commonly regarded as the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography." Bilbija, Marina (1 September 2011). "Democracy’s New Song". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637 (1): 64–77. doi:10.1177/0002716211407153. ISSN 0002-7162. Retrieved 2012-02-25.