Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Burden of Southern History

As always, clicking on the picture will enlarge it.

I'm stealing the title of a first class book by a first class scholar of the American South (and Southerner), C. Vann Woodward, to just share a few words about something I've wanted to write about for a long time. I don't have the time to write it, so I'll just steal other people's words.

When querying friends and family about their understanding of the Reconstruction Era (I query because it rarely comes up in conversation), I've found that they, like I, were raised on the "Dunning School" description of that era. William H. Dunning (1857-1922) was a Columbia University historian who, with his PhD. students and others, created a mythology about Reconstruction which I would guess most Americans still think is accurate.

See if this sounds familiar:
... [A]fter the war, with Lincoln dead, a group of vengeful Republicans sought to take control of national politics.  Casting aside any notion of sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, they forged a patchwork alliance of ignorant blacks (and “ignorant” is the kindest portrayal of the freedpeople in these accounts), corrupt and conniving carpetbaggers (northern-born whites who had migrated south), and cowardly and sniveling scalawags (native white southerners), who together embarked on an orgy of corruption and exploitation the likes of which had never before been seen.  Gallant white southerners, pledged to restore law and social order, struggled against this catastrophe, and organized into patriotic groups to reclaim what was rightfully theirs (cue Birth of a Nation).  Such brave crusaders in their flowing white robes redeemed the South, ended corruption, ousted the adventurers, returned the blacks to their rightful place in southern society (because all white southerners asked for was to be left alone), and marked the triumph of good over evil.
If you're like me, the above description, by Professor Brooks D. Simpson of Arizona State University, might be a bit heavier on the racism of the argument than we remember, but we certainly remember those carpetbaggers and scalawags, don't we?

Here's a short remedy for our mis-education. From an online textbook called Digital History, published by the University of Houston, this is how scholars regard the Reconstruction era now:
Immediately following the war, all-white Southern legislatures passed black codes which denied blacks the right to purchase or rent land. These efforts to force former slaves to work on plantations led Congressional Republicans to seize control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson, deny representatives from the former Confederate states their Congressional seats, and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and draft the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship rights to African Americans and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave voting rights to black men. The freedmen, in alliance with carpetbaggers and southern white Republicans known as scalawags, temporarily gained power in every former Confederate state except Virginia. The Reconstruction governments drew up democratic state constitutions, expanded women's rights, provided debt relief, and established the South's first state-funded schools. Internal divisions within the Southern Republican Party, white terror, and Northern apathy allowed white Southern Democrats known as Redeemers to return to power. During Reconstruction former slaves and many small white farmers became trapped in a new system of economic exploitation known as sharecropping.
That sure is a different way of looking at it, isn't it?  If you're interested enough to read more, here's a link to the online textbook's section on this.

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