February 25, 2022 | OPINION | By Tom Byron | Illustration by Kira Schulist
February is Black History Month, dedicated to remembering the stories of Black Americans and their role in the development of the United States. Slavery, the Civil War, and the Jim Crow South are central to these stories, and much coverage of Black History Month focuses on these periods. But after the Civil War and before Jim Crow, there was another chapter of Black history, one where Black Americans held power that they would not see again for more than a century.
From 1865 to 1877, the United States tried to rebuild after the destruction of the Civil War, an effort focused on ensuring that the southern states would not try to rebel again. Republicans, as the party of Abraham Lincoln, swept elections in much of the postwar South through the solid support of newly enfranchised Black voters.
Despite opposition from Andrew Johnson, the white Southerner who took the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, Radical Republicans in Congress pushed through the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These wrote into law an end to slavery, equal treatment under the law, and protection for the right to vote.
But even before these Reconstruction amendments, Black Americans seized the opportunity to defend their hard-won freedom. Black political movements exploded throughout the South, electing both Black and white Republicans to state constitutional conventions and political office.
Sixteen Black men served in Congress during this period, including two senators, and hundreds of Black officials held power across every southern state. These leaders were committed to defending Black civil rights, promoting education, and bringing the interests of Black Americans into the halls of power for the first time in American history.
Despite constant attacks from many Southern white people, these leaders worked to build a new South from the ashes of the Civil War. They expanded the political system, removing property restrictions on voting, enforcing labor regulations, and allowing free expression in the South for the first time. They strengthened state control over the economy, funding public education and infrastructure projects such as railroads.
Most importantly, they fought for a true multiracial democracy, something the world had never seen before. Black leaders were adamant in their defense of equality before the law, universal manhood suffrage, universal rights to education and justice, and an end to state violence against its citizens.
For more than a decade, Black Americans held political power in much of the South and showed that their vision for the United States was far closer to our modern aspirations than any of their contemporaries. We are still struggling to achieve their goals even today. Policies based around universal public education, expanded voting rights, infrastructure investment, and ending racial exclusion were as important to Black Reconstruction as they are to the modern progressive movement.
Yet the story of Reconstruction is often absent from history, even Black history, overshadowed by the Civil War and the horrors of the Jim Crow South that came after. Most of these achievements were rolled back once white supremacists returned to power in the South, and histories of Reconstruction were shaped by racist theories of the Lost Cause.
Stories of political corruption, failed policies, and “Black Supremacy” were at the center of Reconstruction and served to justify white rule in the South. Despite these narratives falling out of favor after the Civil Rights movement, nothing replaced them, and Reconstruction fell out of the American story entirely.
But Reconstruction was and remains a central chapter in the history of the United States. Its leaders, movements, and accomplishments deserve to be remembered as part of a new narrative of Black agency in the United States, and as the beginning of the long struggle for Black Civil Rights after the end of slavery. Books like “Black Reconstruction” by W. E. B. Du Bois and Eric Foner’s modern “A Short History of Reconstruction” paint this picture in gripping detail, describing the triumph and tragedy of these vital years.
After centuries of enslavement, Black Americans devoted themselves to education, economic independence, and democracy, holding onto books and ballots as the keys to building a better life. They didn’t just stand by and let the white South send them back into slavery — they fought back and built a vision of America that still resonates today. This Black History Month, we should remember the promise of Reconstruction, and honor the countless Black Americans who risked their lives for liberty and justice for all.