Report: Standards For Teaching Reconstruction Failing Students

Zinn Education Project shows standards that influence how the Reconstruction era is taught in U.S. schools are at best inadequat
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Photo: Library of Congress

WASHINGTON—A report released today by the Zinn Education Project shows standards that influence how the Reconstruction era is taught in U.S. schools are at best inadequate. In more than a dozen states, they still reflect century-old historic distortions that justified denying Black Americans full citizenship.

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction aims to encourage policymakers, teachers, parents and students to advocate for more attention to the era in grades K–12.

It includes assessments of education standards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with findings and recommendations for how to support teachers for better instruction on Reconstruction, often called “the nation’s second founding.”

“Teaching and learning the truth about Reconstruction is not only about correcting or supporting the historical record, though that is important,” said Mimi Eisen, who co-authored the report with Ana Rosado and Gideon Cohn-Postar. “Beyond that, it is about understanding why disparities in wealth, education, health, and policing exist, the ways they are maintained, and the power of collective action in overturning them and creating a better world.”

RELEVANCE TO TODAY

The issues people grappled with during Reconstruction — the period of progressive advances following the Civil War — are among the most pressing issues we face today.

  • The January 6, 2021, insurrection was a reaction in part to the Black Lives Matter movement and other grassroots organizing — just as the white supremacy and violence that ended Reconstruction was a racist reaction to the grassroots gains Black Americans made during that period. At least two lawsuits invoking the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan Act (the Enforcement Act of 1871) have been filed against those who encouraged or participated in the insurrection.
  • The “Reconstruction Amendments” to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — are critical to the ongoing struggles for civil rights. The 13th Amendment legally abolishes slavery, “except as a punishment for crime.” (This clause permitted widespread convict leasing and, eventually, mass incarceration.) The 14th Amendment grants equal treatment under the law, finally making the Constitution a document people could cite in arguments for equality, including, today, equal treatment by police. The 15th Amendment prohibits federal and state racial discrimination in voting, though voting rights are under attack today by state legislatures throughout the country as well as by the Supreme Court.
  • States across the country are instituting bans on teaching history that involves racism or other topics that are dubiously called “divisive.” These efforts to remove history from classrooms have their roots in early 20th century efforts to replace the truth about Reconstruction with the racist myth of the southern Lost Cause.
  • Had the goals of Black people and their Radical Republican supporters been realized during Reconstruction, it’s likely the wealth disparities between Black and white Americans today would be smaller.

WHAT WAS RECONSTRUCTION?

The National Park Service calls the Reconstruction era, “one of the most complicated, poorly understood and significant periods in American history.” It was a time of immense possibility for economic equity and progress for multiracial democracy, destroyed by white supremacists precisely because of its aims and achievements.

The momentum of Reconstruction and the radical promise it held stemmed from grassroots Black activism, which began long before the Civil War and continues to this day as part of the long Black freedom struggle.

The end of the Civil War saw the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people, who organized to fulfill the promise of freedom. Economically, politically, and socially they challenged governing traditions of white supremacy. In response, white supremacists created new means to obstruct Black mobility for decades to come, including Jim Crow laws and Black Codes.

During Reconstruction:

  • More than 1,500 Black Americans took public office for the first time, many in Southern districts with majority-Black populations who could now secure political representation. In the 1860s and ‘70s, 16 Black Americans served in Congress, about half of whom were formerly enslaved. To quell this surge in democracy, white supremacists seized power, imposing laws, loopholes, and intimidation tactics to suppress voting rights. Consequently, this level of Black political representation would not appear again for nearly a century.
  • Black communities founded the South’s first public education systems, starting more than 1,000 new schools. Underlining the connection between freedom and education, white supremacists destroyed at least 631 Black schoolhouses between 1864 and 1876 alone.
  • Black Americans fought for control of land and their own labor, but white elites in both the North and South barred Black Americans from building the wealth required for tangible, sustainable mobility and independence. In the decades after Reconstruction, some historians (known as the Dunning School) invented and promoted a false narrative that Reconstruction was a reckless effort that failed. In fact, its gains were suppressed, with both violence and racist legislation, by white elites threatened by Black progress.

FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS

In nearly every state, creators of education standards that influence what is taught about Reconstruction fail to incorporate the history of the era with the care, complexity, and honesty that people who lived through the time and today’s students deserve.

Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle shows that in more than a dozen states, the Dunning School of false and distorted framing still influences standards and curricula.

Most state standards focus on government bodies and other eltes as primary actors of Reconstruction, rather than the achievements and perspectives of ordinary Black people, whose unprecedented grassroots work in governing, education, labor, health, and more lies at the heart of the era. Most standards also fail to note white supremacy’s role in defeating Reconstruction or connections between that historic period and today.

In addition to addressing these deficiencies, the report recommends schools and districts support teachers and students by providing professional development opportunities to enhance knowledge and strategies on teaching Reconstruction, as well as allowing more learning time during the school year to focus on the era.

“Ignorance about Reconstruction upholds white supremacy,” said Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher in Washington state, Rethinking Schools editor and co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives. “Our children deserve to be taught the truth about U.S. history. The issues at the heart of Reconstruction — political representation, civil rights, economic freedoms — continue today as part of an ongoing struggle for justice. Learning about Reconstruction and its legacies invites students into that struggle, affirming that progress is not a straight line, and providing inspiration for continual engagement.”

The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history in classrooms across the country. For more than ten years, the Zinn Education Project has introduced students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. With more than 140,000 people registered, and growing by more than 15,000 new registrants every year, the Zinn Education Project has become a leading resource for teachers and teacher educators.

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