In 2019, Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents a vital new four-hour documentary series on Reconstruction: America After the Civil War. The series explores the transformative years following the American Civil War, when the nation struggled to rebuild itself in the face of profound loss, massive destruction, and revolutionary social change. The twelve years that composed the post-war Reconstruction era (1865-77) witnessed a seismic shift in the meaning and makeup of our democracy, with millions of former slaves and free black people seeking out their rightful place as equal citizens under the law. Though tragically short-lived, this bold democratic experiment was, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a ‘brief moment in the sun’ for African Americans, when they could advance, and achieve, education, exercise their right to vote, and run for and win public office. The first two hours of the series centers on this pivotal decade following the rebellion, charting black progress and highlighting the accomplishments of the many political leaders who emerged to usher their communities into this new era of freedom.
The series’ second half looks beyond that hopeful decade, when the arc of history bent backwards. It became increasingly clear that many Southern white people were never willingly going to accept this new social order and that the federal government was not prepared to provide African Americans with consistent or enduring protection of their new rights. While tracing the unraveling of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation in the closing years of the nineteenth century, we look at the myriad ways in which black people continued to acquire land, build institutions, and strengthen communities amidst increasing racial violence and repression. Less than thirty years after black men filled state legislatures, one by one, like dominoes tumbling the Southern states began drastically restricting the vote while drawing a stark color line that divided white and black America. The series concludes with a focus on both the flowering of African American art, music, literature, and culture as tools of resistance in the struggle against Jim Crow racism and the surge of political activism that marked the launch of such iconic civil rights organizations as the National Association of Colored Women, the Niagara Movement, and the NAACP, all at a time when black political power had been blunted and the dream of an interracial democracy seemed impossibly out of reach.
Reconstruction is one of the most important and consequential chapters in American history. It is also among the most overlooked, misunderstood, and misrepresented. Some of our most famous narratives of the period include demeaning stereotypes of black people and skewed versions of events that have been immortalized in films from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind. This series tells the real story of Reconstruction, honoring the struggle of the African Americans who fought their way out of slavery and challenged the nation to live up to the founding ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality. Over a hundred and fifty years later, this struggle continues.
Reconstruction: America After the Civil War is a joint production of INKWELL FILMS and McGEE MEDIA. Award-winning filmmakers Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Dyllan McGee are executive producers. Julia Marchesi is the series producer and director. Rob Rapley, Stacey Holman and Cyndee Readdean are producer/directors.