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Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 is a history of the Reconstruction era by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. It marked a significant break with the standard academic view of Reconstruction at the time, marked by the Dunning School, which contended that the period was a failure and downplayed the contributions of African Americans. Du Bois argued directly against these accounts, emphasizing the role and agency of blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction and framing it as a period that held promise for a worker-ruled democracy to replace a slavery-based plantation economy. He noted that the southern working class, i.e. black freedmen and poor whites, were divided after the Civil War along the lines of race, and did not unite against the white propertied class, i.e. the former planters. He believed this failure 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’ extensive use of data and primary source material on the postwar political economy of the former Confederate States is notable, as is the literary style of this 750-page essay. He notes major achievements, such as establishing public education in the South for the first time, the founding of charitable institutions to care for all citizens, the extension of the vote to the landless whites, and investment in public infrastructure.
Context and inception
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 Lynwood 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.
After three short chapters profiling the black worker, the white worker, and the planter, Du Bois argues in the fourth chapter that the decision gradually taken by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working during the war was an example of a potential general strike force of four million slaves the Southern elite had not reckoned with. The Institution of slavery simply had to soften: "In a certain sense, after the first few months everybody knew that slavery was done with; that no matter who won, the condition of the slave could never be the same after this disaster of war."
Du Bois’ research shows that the post-emancipation South did not degenerate into economic or political chaos. State by state in subsequent chapters, he notes the efforts of the elite planter class to retain control and recover property (land, in particular) lost during the war. This, in the ever-present context of violence committed by paramilitary groups, often from the former poor-white overseer class, all throughout the South. These groups often used terror to repress black organization and suffrage, frightened by the immense power that 4 million voters would have on the shape of the future.
He documents the creation of public health departments to promote public health and sanitation, and to combat the spread of epidemics during the Reconstruction period. Against the claim that the Radical Republicans had done a poor job at the constitutional conventions and during the first decade of Reconstruction, Du Bois observes that after the Democrats regained power in 1876, they did not change the Reconstruction constitutions for nearly a quarter century. When the Democrats did pass laws to impose racial segregation and Jim Crow, they maintained some support of public education, public health and welfare laws, along with the constitutional principles that benefited the citizens as a whole.
Critical reception and legacy
The work was largely ignored by critics and historians upon publication, when the views of the Dunning School associated with Columbia University prevailed in published histories of Reconstruction. 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 he believed were particularly racist or ill-informed works. Du Bois thought that certain historians were maintaining the “southern white fairytale” 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 Butler Simkins, and Robert Woody. 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.
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. By the early twenty-first century, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.”
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction. Harcourt Brace. p. 59.
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction. Harcourt Brace. pp. 419, 465, 494, 503, 521, 675–709.
- Foner, Eric (2013). "Black Reconstruction: An Introduction". South Atlantic Quarterly. 112 (3): 409–418. doi:10.1215/00382876-2146368. Retrieved 2016-01-18.
- Black Reconstruction, p. 715
- Foner, Eric (1 December 1982). "Reconstruction Revisited". Reviews in American History. 10 (4): 82–100 . ISSN 0048-7511. JSTOR 2701820. doi:10.2307/2701820.
- “During the civil rights era, however, it became apparent that Du Bois’ 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.
- 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.
- “W. E. B. Du Bois’ (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. ISSN 0002-7162. doi:10.1177/0002716211407153. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
- WEBDuBois.org - significant background material available here.