Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work by Hilary N. Green

This week we share our first Field Dispatch from Dr. Hilary Green, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).


Teaching Reconstruction is hard. This is a difficult admission, especially for someone who has written about the period. Before launching into possible strategies, there are two caveats to the advice provided below. First, I teach in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. My department and often my classes are located in a postwar campus building named after Basil Manly, the minister who delivered a prayer at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration.[1] As a result, my students deeply understand his role in slavery at the university and how the memory of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction shapes both their understanding of the past and current campus experiences. Second, I do not teach the United States survey, but instead an upper-level undergraduate, nineteenth-century black history course. Some of this advice may be adaptable to different levels and programs, depending on your student population. My students are typically well versed in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality and Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crow.[2] Yet, even these more-socially aware students have difficulties with Reconstruction. The strategies I suggest have been tested and refined. I believe they work for teaching across a spectrum of students.

First, center your initial lecture on the newly emancipated. Since I am fortunate to teach Reconstruction over a series of lectures, I have developed an opening exercise that untethers students from any misconceptions and centers them on the major feature of Reconstruction–the newly emancipated African Americans. Students are divided into small groups of recently emancipated individuals who have been given twenty-four hours to decide between staying on the plantation or leaving. After selecting a last name, students address a series of considerations for survival if they decide to leave, or provisions to include in a contract with their former owner if they remain. Students have ten to fifteen minutes to complete the exercise.

Carolina Singers

“Carolina Singers,” Hovey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carte de visite, c. 1870s. Courtesy of the author.

Following the opening exercise, I use photography to discuss how African Americans defined their new identities. Thanks to a personal collection of early African American photography, students are able to view and hold several examples and reflect on the opening exercise. In reading these historic photographs, students bear witness to the Carolina Singers, a group of newly emancipated men and women engaged in a fundraising tour for the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, South Carolina. They also grapple with the contrasting depictions of the postwar black Mississippi community through images of John Roy Lynch and an unidentified Mississippian dressed in worn clothing while his eyes beaming with the joys of freedom. These visual texts give voice to the many unidentified individuals who left little to no written records but celebrated their new status and existence through photographic technology. For those without such collections, digital examples from the Library of Congress will suffice. The Black Codes, reunification, education, and political achievements also garner special attention before we launch into frank discussions over Reconstruction’s failed economic policies

 

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.