Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
Hour Two

Reconstruction | Part 1, Hour 2

Post-Civil War America was a new world. For African Americans, living in the former Confederacy, Reconstruction was, what historian W. E. B. Du Bois once described as their “brief moment in the sun.” Clothed with citizenship and voting rights, now for the first time they could begin to take charge of their own lives, families, and communities – the future seemed limitless. The first black men took seats in the U.S. Congress, in Southern state governments, and on juries; black colleges opened and the Southern states’ first public school systems were organized; newly created black institutions, from churches to mutual aid societies to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, began to flourish; and black families began buying land to farm and opened businesses to achieve a measure of independence from their former masters. But the progress did not last long. White reactionaries in the former Confederacy launched violent attacks to “redeem” their states, to re-establish the old order – a society built on white supremacy.

Over time, Northern support for Reconstruction and military intervention in the South faded, especially with the onset of a tumultuous economic depression in 1873 that led voters to cast ballots for the rival party the following year, leaving Democrats in control of Congress for the first time since the Civil War. By the 1876 Presidential election, both leading candidates – Democrat and Republican – pledged to bring an end to Reconstruction. Following a violent campaign and protracted electoral dispute, the incoming president, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, made good on his promise to let Southern states control their own affairs. The South had been “redeemed” and the forces of white supremacy were ascendant.