Reconstruction: “America’s Unfinished Revolution,” 150 Years Later

By Pam Nogales

This year marks the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of American Reconstruction (1865–1877), a historical period largely absent from popular imagination.

Historical narratives of black Americans have been incorporated into films and television shows including the show Roots (1977) and the films The Color Purple (1985), Django Unchained (2012), and 12 Years a Slave (2013). These productions have exposed several generations of viewers to the lives of black people under the periods of slavery and Jim Crow. Curiously absent from this popular memory however is the American Reconstruction Era—the critical years after the Civil War when the emancipation of Southern slaves precipitated a social and political crisis at a national level.

The story of this short but critical period in American history has undergone several waves of scholarly revision throughout the twentieth century. Most recently, U.S. historians have highlighted the national dimensions of political and social transformation, including those of Freedmen and Northern laborers whose rights to organize faced serious legal constraints. Taken as a whole, this new scholarship suggests that a dual process took place in the period of American Reconstruction: (1) the sordid integration of free black laborers into the American economy and (2) the further disciplining of Northern laborers. Both of these processes were key to the ascendance of the United States as a global, industrial power at the end of the nineteenth century.

In this sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, what is the legacy of this contentious period in American history? How have historians made sense of the social and political constraints undergirding Reconstruction? And how have they understood the available potential for social transformation? What is the nature of this period’s “revolutionary” character? These questions will serve as an initial guide to our investigation of American Reconstruction beginning on Saturday, January 16, 2:30pm at The New York Public Library’s Jefferson Market branch. (The class meets from 2:30pm to 4:30pm on the following Saturdays: January 16, 23, 30; February 6, 13.)

Pam C. Nogales is an American History PhD Candidate at New York University and founding member of the political educational project, the Platypus Affiliated Society. Her research focuses on radical political thought in the United States during the rapid social transformation of the nineteenth century.

JHL Dance Dynamics School of Dance Shines at Broadlawn Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation Center

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