Depending on whom you ask, Reconstruction, which lasted from 1863 to 1877, began with Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that declared “all persons held as slaves within [Confederate] States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free.” Others might say it began the moment the Confederacy, its industry, farms, and railroads ruined, surrendered to Union troops in 1865. Still, a more exacting group might date it at the passage of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which carved the South into five military districts in which a military commander had the final word for an entire decade. Despite these varied beginnings, all ignore the stories of the people central to this revolutionary moment: enslaved Black people.
As we grapple with the radical meaning of today’s Black Lives Matters movement, it is important to look at our history to understand how our ancestors mobilized to secure freedom after the Civil War. It is also important to understand power and the systems that sought to undermine the potential for Black autonomy and freedom in the United States.
While Reconstruction demonstrated the law’s limited ability to reverse the violence of 366 years of chattel slavery, Black people still organized civic associations, won elective office, and established towns—all motivated by an alternative vision of American democracy.
We are indebted to W.E.B. Du Bois’s book Black Reconstruction, the first revisionist account of the racist view that Black people were unequipped for freedom. We will read Du Bois in tandem with other sources past and present.