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In the 1930s, when researchers from the Works Progress Administration fanned out across the South, they often spied the same faded print tacked onto the walls of sharecropper cabins. It was by Currier and Ives, dated 1872. Seven men are gathered from states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia; all wear dignified suits and vests, while some sport the muttonchops and mustaches of the times. It’s an ordinary group picture, really — except for their skin tone and this extraordinary title: “The First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States.”

This image supplies a pang whenever I look at it, and it’s on the cover of my first book today: Philip Dray’s “Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen” (Mariner, 2010). Depending on the start date (some say 1865, others 1863) we are at the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction, just after the war ended and Lincoln died, when 4 million slaves were suddenly freed, and a split country raggedly tried to heal. Bursting with idealism and violence, triumph and corruption, the era swims in contradictions: As Dray writes: “[I]t is difficult to imagine another period in America’s past as complex as Reconstruction, or one that has been as controversial in the telling.”

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Well into the 1940s, Reconstruction was generally condemned as “a grotesque experiment,” as Dray writes, of federal overreaching. This was true in scholarly circles; see the Dunning School, led by Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning. And it was true in the popular culture; see “Birth of a Nation” in which freed blacks, Northern interlopers (carpetbaggers), and Southern turncoats (scalawags) are the enemy, until white supremacists put things to rights. Indeed, Reconstruction ended by 1877 when Confederate tactics (discriminatory laws known as the Black Codes and terror campaigns by the Klan), plus rising corruption over disbursed federal funds, plus a bad economy (namely, the Panic of 1873) caused the North to lose the will to enforce change.

But what of the “colored senator and representatives’’? They were part of an unprecedented wave of change, as Confederate loyalists were marginalized, and blacks got the vote. In Mississippi during Reconstruction, for instance, 226 African-Americans served in various offices from county tax collector on up: Hiram Rhodes Revels, first on the left in the picture, took Jefferson Davis’s Senate seat. So much promise, so short-lived. No one summed up Reconstruction better than W.E.B. Du Bois: “a splendid failure.”

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After the 1960s, Reconstruction started getting a serious second look — indeed, the civil rights movement was sometimes called “America’s Second Reconstruction.” And the monumental corrective classic came out in 1988: “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877” (republished by Harper Perennial in 2001) by another Columbia historian, Eric Foner. He argued that former slaves were much better prepared for freedom than had been supposed — their alleged inability had been the pretext for segregation. In fact, the black community helped set the agenda of Reconstruction for themselves, establishing as much autonomy as possible, particularly through upping access to education. Foner also said the era’s greatest lost opportunity lay in land distribution. President Andrew Johnson, pro-Union but a former slaveowner, ended up pardoning most Confederate landowners and restoring their acreage — which perpetuated the old system of patriarchy and inequality (thus those sharecropper cabins).

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Foner’s book is indispensible, but dense. A pithier primer can be found in Michael W. Fitzgerald’s “Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South” (Ivan R. Dee, 2007). He deftly weaves the narratives and emphasizes the role of white Southern Republicans — a minority suddenly elevated by being on the winning side — and their rickety alliance with newly enfranchised black Southern Republicans. Both groups, impoverished by the war or slavery, were at the mercy of Northern capital. This was a recipe for corruption, which got so bad the coalition lost the backing of white Northern reformers.

That story gains more ground in James Alex Baggett’s scholarly “The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction” (Louisiana State University, 2003). “Scalawag” can be traced to a Scottish insult from the 1600s (it was a term for inferior livestock), and there was a class aspect here: Half of the scalawags had held slaves before the war versus two-thirds of the Southern Democrats known, after the war, as “redeemers.” Some scalawags joined the Union army after invasion (particularly in Tennessee and New Orleans); others came from the mountains, where fewer slaves resided. Some were morally antislavery (such as Quakers in North Carolina) while others practiced realpolitik; they agreed to black suffrage because those votes would bring them to power.

The old Howard Industrial School on Putnam Street in Cambridgeport is named after General Oliver Otis Howard, who also gave his name to Howard University; he ran the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. It advocated for former slaves — offering food rations, negotiating labor contracts, establishing schools — all against the constant ruses by ex-Confederates to thwart their efforts.

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When Howard got the job, General William Tecumseh Sherman told him “I fear you have Hercules’ task.” I learned this by reading “After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace” (Simon and Schuster, 2014) by A.J. Langguth. It tells the story of Reconstruction via vivid profiles of players like Howard, as well as Charles Sumner, the radical Massachusetts senator, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan’s first Grand Wizard, and Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the first African-American governor of a state (Louisiana).

Thanks go to a University of Massachusetts at Amherst history professor for my last two books here, both highly illuminating. Her name is Heather Cox Richardson and her “West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War” (Yale University, 2007) traces how the country matured and evolved up to World War I, with the fresh promise of the West acting as a kind of therapeutic alternative to Reconstruction trauma. Her chapter two (“The Future of Free Labor”) is clear-eyed on the not-so-noble aims of the North during Reconstruction; Southerners thought that “New England radicals were advancing their own oligarchy, weakening the states and imposing a rule that they themselves would never tolerate.” Meanwhile, Andrew Johnson sent mixed signals, pardoning 13,500 of the 15,000 less-wealthy Confederates who applied (he blamed the upper class for secession) but forcing Southerners to default on their war debt, thereby ruining their credit, so they couldn’t fund a second rebellion.

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Last summer, I happened to travel to South Carolina, beautiful in parts, but also retaining the aura of a defeated country, the legacy of both the war and the unredeemed “promissory note” of Reconstruction, to quote Martin Luther King. I better understood my impression after reading “The South Since the Civil War: As Shown by Fourteen Weeks of Travel and Observation in Georgia and the Carolinas” (Louisiana State University Press, 2004, first published in 1866). Edited by Richardson, it’s the work of Sidney Andrews, a Massachusetts-born, Illinois-based journalist who spent the fall of 1865 traveling through Dixie, sending his dispatches to the Chicago Tribune and Boston Advertiser. He displays the not-so-casual racism of his day, but offers invaluable reportage on the new state constitutional and freedmen’s conventions of the time, in prose that runs to aubergine, not necessarily a bad thing: the war-ruined white citizens of Charleston, SC, for instance, have “eaten wormwood, and their souls have worn sackcloth.”

In that Currier and Ives print, three of the seven men — some stare right at you, some into the distance, or perhaps the future — represent South Carolina, the very state where the Civil War began. Which brings me back to “Capitol Men,” my most uplifting book today. It claims that Reconstruction slumbered “for decades in the attic of American history” only to bear fruition a century later, and beyond. Honor this, then: Many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were educated at the colleges founded during Reconstruction, and pushed through legislation with the help of the “constitutional blueprint” of visionary freedmen. As our nation continues to struggle with painful questions of race, Reconstruction deserves to bust out of the attic, straight into the light.


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.