Reconstruction engraving by J.L. Giles, N.Y. 1867. Source: Library of Congress

A More Perfect Union?

The Reconstruction Era

Lately, Americans feel the country is more divided (at least politically) than ever and often wonder how to go about repairing our divisions. Those same questions were asked when the nation started to come back together after the very real split of the Civil War. When Congress passed the first Reconstruction Acts, paving the way for Confederate states to rejoin the Union after the war, many also asked who belonged in the country and what rights they would have. So, in this episode, Ed, Nathan and Joanne explore the central questions of the Reconstruction Era.

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NATHAN: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

ED: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explores the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers.

NATHAN: I’m Nathan Connolly.

JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman.

ED: If you’re new to the podcast, Joanne, Nathan, our friend, Brian Balogh, and I are all historians. And every week, we take a topic in the news and explore it across American history. And today, Joanne, Nathan, and I would like to talk about something that shows up in the news every so often. But even when it does, it’s rarely a headline. You probably just hear it in passing.

REPORTER: Louisiana’s first non-white governor since Reconstruction.

REPORTER: The first black senator to be elected in the South since Reconstruction.

REPORTER: Cotton prices have skyrocketed to the highest price since Reconstruction.

MALE SPEAKER: Reconstruction. 1920s. Before in the 1870s.

NATHAN: So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that today’s show is about Reconstruction.

ED: Very bold, Nathan. Yes.

NATHAN: I like to take chances.

ED: Yes, and your boldness is going to be repaid today, Nathan, because our show today marks the 150th anniversary this month of the Military Reconstruction Acts, what people call radical reconstruction.

JOANNE: OK, but Ed, if we were just basing our assumptions about Reconstruction based on those voices we just heard, we would think it had something to do with African-Americans getting elected to office in the South until it didn’t happen in the South. And it has something or other to do with cotton prices being really high.

ED: Yeah, you really nailed it there.

JOANNE: It’s very specific.

ED: Well, the fact is it’s A, hard to make sense of, and B, a lot of people feel like they skip it over winter break or between volume one and volume two of their textbook. Because the fact is Reconstruction is this pivotal moment that’s kind of blurry in our historical imagination. But here are the two things that it did. It reunified the United States after the rupture of the American Civil War, and it tried to remake the South after the destruction of slavery.

Two enormously important and enormously hard things to do. So there’s a lot at stake in this moment of history, and to get us started about what was at stake I want you to listen to this letter written by a group of free black men in Nashville, Tennessee. And they wrote this in January, 1865, a few months before the end of the Civil War.

MALE SPEAKER: We, the undersigned petitioners, American citizens of African descent, do most respectfully ask a patient hearing of your honorable body in regard to a matter deeply affecting the future condition of our unfortunate and long-suffering race.

NATHAN: Ed, who’s this letter for? It’s a petition, but I’m not entirely sure who they’re petitioning.

ED: Yeah, good question, Nathan. They’re writing to the delegates of a state convention in Nashville who are gathering to decide how Tennessee will rejoin the Union. How do you put the country back together after it’s been taken apart? They’re really trying to figure out what’s it going to mean to be a part of the United States as an equal citizen.

So they want to know if when Tennessee rejoins the Union, will African-Americans be able to vote, or own property, or testify in court? Will they be granted all the rights and privileges and protections of citizenships that they’ve seen their white neighbors enjoying for decades? Because up to this point, these men had seen very little of what America had to offer that was good. They’re not certain at all what the future is going to look like.

MALE SPEAKER: If this order of things continue, our people are destined to a malignant persecution at the hands of rebels and their former rebellious masters whose hatred they may have incurred without precedent even in the South. A rebel may murder his former slave and defy justice. Is this the fruit of freedom and the reward of our services in the field?

Is it for this that we have guided Union officers and soldiers when escaping from the cruel and deadly prisons of the South at the risk of our own lives for we knew, that to us, detection would be death. If this should be so, then will our last state be worse than our first, and we can look for no relief on this side of the grave?

ED: What’s scary about this is that they’re foreseeing the next century.

NATHAN: Yeah, man.

ED: They recognize where all of the bastions of power of the former confederates are going to lie. And they’re telling white Republicans even before the war is over, gentlemen this is what you’re going to have to fix.

JOANNE: And just the existence of this is such a great reminder that, I think, it’s natural to assume that when a war ends, somehow lines have been drawn and things are clear. And this petition is a great reminder that wars end and actually things are extremely unsettled. And things like insider and outsider, and right and wrong, and winners and losers have to be hashed out. And this is a document of hashing out.

ED: Exactly, Joanne. And that hashing out is what Reconstruction is all about. These African-American men are asking whether the federal government will protect them and ensure their rights. Because in January of 1865, it’s not clear what the federal government will do.

NATHAN: So it might be safe to say that never before and really never since has a country been in such need of being rebuilt politically, economically, culturally as during the era of Reconstruction.

ED: Yeah, and I think that’s one of the things that makes this Reconstruction era so poignant. It’s as close to a reboot as we’ve ever had a chance for in American history. We wrote this Constitution that did an elaborate dance around slavery, and then we lived with it for generations until the war tore it apart.

We made all these compromises. But finally, here’s a chance to create a nation without slavery. What a tantalizing possibility. How many countries get a chance to re-imagine themselves?

JOANNE: As someone who works on the founding, the thing about these kinds of rebooting moments, they’re moments of amazing promise. But for that very reason, they’re also moments of tremendous instability and actually fear.

ED: Yeah, you know that promise and that fear are played out in communities all across the South. And what we’re going to do today is to visit two of those communities– one, Washington DC, the other, rural Louisiana– to see what this might look like in people’s lives.

Our first story begins in Washington DC during the Civil War itself. The capital, as it turns out, showed the promise of Reconstruction for African-Americans more than any other place in the country. So here’s the scene. DC is in wartime chaos.

The city has been transformed into a giant army camp. There are tens of thousands of Union soldiers stationed there. Now DC had always had a considerable free black population, but now thousands of slaves from surrounding plantations in Maryland and Virginia are following soldiers into Washington.

A group of lawmakers known as the Radical Republicans see this chaos as their chance to do something, well, radical. This group is a prominent faction in Congress, and Congress pretty much calls the shots in DC. They want to turn Washington into what they call an example for all the land.

KATE MASUR: Well, that quote, the example for all the land is something that Charles Sumner said.

ED: This is historian Kate Masur.

NATHAN: And she’s referring to Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist leader from Massachusetts.

JOANNE: He’s the senator who is caned on the floor of the Senate in 1856 before giving a speech in which he denounced the slave power.

ED: Yep, that’s the guy, Joanne. He was one of the chief architects of this Radical Reconstruction.

KATE MASUR: He was one of the main people in Congress to keep pushing for more and more legislation, equalizing legislation. And he said, we want to make the District of Columbia an example for all the land. Washington DC really illuminates for us the will of Congress and what the nation’s legislators would like to do if they had a chance because just they have so much power there. And so when the Republicans are in control during the 1860s and beginning of the 1870s, they experiment on Washington and kind of use it as a laboratory for what they believe should happen in terms of civil rights and voting rights.

JOANNE: So Ed, why don’t you explain what the Radical Republicans actually thought should happen.

ED: You know, Joanne, what’s interesting is they wanted what those African-American petitioners from Nashville, Tennessee were wanting, and it turned out what African-Americans across the entire South wanted. And these Radical Republicans knew that they could make it happen and do it quickly too. And so here are some of the changes that really in just a few years African-Americans experienced in Washington DC.

KATE MASUR: First of all, emancipation, legal emancipation, in Washington happens in spring 1862. The Congress also passes a law establishing public education for African-American children and outlawing the city’s or the district’s black codes which have been discriminatory, racially discriminatory laws that prevailed and defined the city before the war.

ED: Black Washingtonians have a new voice in the city’s public life. They attend sessions of Congress, they lobby sympathetic law makers such as Sumner and the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, and they persuade Congress to desegregate the district streetcars and railroads. And by 1863, the United States Army was recruiting black soldiers, and those soldiers marched in formation down the muddy avenues of Washington DC.

KATE MASUR: I mean, just think about how amazing it would be in a city where just a year earlier slavery had been legal, where it was still possible for Maryland slave owners to come into the city and demand to have their property back, and now you have African-American men in uniform drilling in the streets. Soldiers themselves feel that they have the standing and the right to demand more than they’re already getting.

JOANNE: Now, here’s a question, Ed.

ED: Yeah.

JOANNE: You’ve talked about it as a laboratory, setting out here’s a high that we can aim for.

ED: Right.

JOANNE: Are they doing that partly just to see if it can work or are they really intending to publicize this to make a strong public message. Look at what can happen, world, or certainly, look at what can happen, the rest of the United States. Look at what we’re doing here.

ED: No, I think that what they are doing is they recognize that there’s a skeptical audience out there. Now, most white Americans aren’t sure what will happen to enslaved people as soon as they are free. There’s widespread prediction that they will die like the American Indians had. There’s others who are saying that they’re going to pick up these guns that we’re handing them as soldiers and wage war against us because, well, they would have adequate reason.

And there are other people who are saying, well, they won’t work, and they don’t care about educating their children. So I think that, Joanne, they are proving to themselves as well to the outside world that what they believe in is true. Is that there is this innate capacity in African Americans to live up to the standards of American citizenship, to take care of themselves, to take care of each other, and to really establish a new kind of progress in the country.

NATHAN: And I would add that DC’s black residents show that they’re more than ready for full citizenship. As you mentioned, even before they had the right to vote, they’re lobbying Congress. They’re establishing churches, mutual aid societies, schools. They’re building institutions to help freed people and newly freed people build their lives.

ED: And all that, Nathan, pressures Congress to give them more rights, to make them full citizens.

KATE MASUR: By 1869, the City Council passes a public accommodation law that bars discrimination in theaters and restaurants as well. And then, of course, there’s voting rights. In 1867, Congress passed voting rights for African-American men in DC. In addition to all of that, new employment opportunities begin to open up.

So with the rise of black voting, African-American men are more likely to get jobs on city streets and city improvements. And then federal employment opens up. African-American men in particular, but also some women begin to have federal clerkships and white collar positions. So those are just some of the many ways that things really open up in terms of rights and equality in Washington in this period.

ED: But African-Americans didn’t have to travel very far to discover that these new rights were actually quite tenuous.

KATE MASUR: This is the story of Kate Brown, and her story was one that I became really, really interested in.

ED: Brown was a free black woman living in Washington.

KATE MASUR: She was an employee in the United States Capitol building. She staffed what was called the ladies’ restroom, the ladies retiring room, in the US Senate. One day in February 1868, she decided to go visit a relative in Alexandria, and she left on the railroad that actually passed in front of the United States Capitol building.

NATHAN: Now, let’s just be clear. That’s Alexandria, Virginia. That’s like 10 miles from the Capitol just across the Potomac River.

KATE MASUR: She had bought a round-trip ticket on the ladies’ car. And in Washington, because of these laws that Congress had passed earlier, there was no racial discrimination on public transportation. And so she rode in the ladies’ car on the way down to Alexandria. Well, the situation was completely different on the way back.

ED: The conductor refused to seat her because the ladies’ car was understood to be reserved for white women.

KATE MASUR: She wouldn’t get off, and they tried to physically get her off that car. And she grabbed onto the pole, and she resisted being kicked off the car. And eventually, though, two men overcame her with their strength and threw her off. And she ended up on the platform and really injured.

ED: As it turned out, some government employees saw Brown get thrown off the train and actually helped her to get home. Now, she worked at the Capitol building, remember. And it was long before some sympathetic congressmen– including that Charles Sumner senator we talked about before– heard what had happened to her.

KATE MASUR: She was injured. She was in bed. A couple of senators had gone to her house, and took her testimony about what had happened. And they also took testimony from witnesses who had seen what had gone down there. And that formed the basis of a report published by the Senate that Sumner wanted to use to argue for more legislation to protect African-American riders on railroads.

ED: Kate Brown sued the railroad. The railroad says, no, no, no, look. It’s entirely legal because we’re providing separate but equal accommodations. Now, the courts rejected that argument at that time, and Kate Brown won her case.

JOANNE: One of the things that’s striking about it is just the almost literal line in the sand that really the sort of little subset of Washington that it really is, in a way, still a laboratory, and it’s not extending necessarily very far out. So that at the beginning of a train ride is one set of circumstances, and at the end of the train ride is another.

NATHAN: Right. And it also is proof positive that in the era of Reconstruction it matters a great deal who your friends are.

JOANNE: Right.

NATHAN: The fact that Kate Brown has these relationships with legislators who can effectively try to enforce rights she should already have. Her rights are only as good as her access to politicians who can do something about it. And that strikes me as a consistent theme running through the late 19th and into the 20th century that it’s one thing to have laws on the books. It’s another altogether to get those laws enforced.

ED: Kate Brown, like African-Americans all across the South, learned all too quickly that there are limits to the promises of Reconstruction. And that sets the stage for our next story.

JOANNE: But first, a word from one of today’s sponsors.

NATHAN: Before we get back to the show, one last thing now. All this month, we’ve been asking you to share your favorite podcasts with us online, and we’ve gotten some great recommendations. Just look at the hashtag T-R-Y pod to see what everyone’s been listening to today.

JOANNE: Now, this is our last reminder to let your family, friends, and followers know which podcast you love. But we know you are not just sharing these podcasts because we ask you to.

NATHAN: That’s right. You want to share.

JOANNE: You’re doing it because– that’s it. Well, not only do you want to share, but it’s for the love of audio. So don’t stop now. Keep spreading the word by telling someone face-to-face or by using the hashtag trypod. That’s T-R-Y pod.

You got this. In fact, you are great at it. It is your destiny. You were born to listen to podcasts, and let people know about them.

ED: If I understand you correctly, you’re saying you want people to try podcasts. I got it. And thanks to the many, many listeners out there who have recommended BackStory– to mention podcasts– to your friends and family. We’re so glad you enjoy the show, and we’ll let you get back to it now.

Before the break, we saw how Washington DC served as a laboratory for reconstruction. Our next story takes us into the rural South to see how the story unfolded. Before we really understand that, we need to pull the camera back and look at all the monumental changes that transformed the entire South in just a matter of years.

Congress took two big steps toward reconstruction even before the war ended. In 1865, they passed the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery in America once and for all. They also established the Freedmen’s Bureau which brought food, supplies, and legal protection to newly freed people across the South. And here’s something that’s hard for us to understand, because we see that right out of the gate, African-Americans in Nashville and in Washington know what they want and need to be a full part of the American nation.

But it takes the United States years to put all those pieces in place. Ultimately, what they say is, here’s the deal. You southern states that rose up in rebellion against the United States, you’re going to have to write new constitutions acknowledging the end of slavery. And black men will be able to vote, and they will be able to serve as delegates to the conventions that will write those constitutions.

And when that constitution comes out and says, not only do we acknowledge the end of slavery, but we also acknowledge this new 14th Amendment that says that if you are born in this country, you have all the rights of a citizen. When you’ve done that, then you can apply to come back in the United States. That takes five years from the end of the Civil War for that process to be complete. Five years after those petitioners from Nashville had said that is what was going to be necessary.

NATHAN: So I get all the politics, and it’s important to spell that out. But I have to imagine there’s something holding this all together.

ED: That would be the United States Army. The army is mobilized and brought back down south to enforce all of this two years after the war. That’s why it’s called the Military Reconstruction Act. Here’s the paradox. If you don’t have the army there, there’s nothing in place to make these things happen. But the army even being there is not strong enough to really drive all this home.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: I would say that their coverage is incredibly spotty.

ED: This is historian Kidada Williams. She told the story of a man named Cuff Canara. Canara was a newly freed man in rural Louisiana. And in the summer of 1866, he set out to report a crime.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: He had tried to stop his employer from sexually assaulting his wife. As an enslaved man, Cuff would have had to endure this violence. He would have had very little social or legal recourse to stop the rapes. But he understood that with slavery’s end that– and as a citizen– that he could now take action against his employer. So he has a clear understanding that the world has shifted, and in this new world, he can take action to provide some protection for his wife.

ED: Cuff Canara’s employer was a white man named Dan Docking. Now, Kidada Williams says we don’t know exactly what happened when Canara confronted his boss, but it didn’t go well. On August 1, 1866, Canara ran to the nearest office of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was 10 miles away in Sparta, Louisiana.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Docking joined forces with two white allies to try to stop Canara from reporting the violence. And I think that when he runs, they have a sense that that’s where he’s going.

ED: The three white men chase Canara most of the way to the Bureau office.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: They not only fire their weapons at him, they also use dogs tracking him.

ED: Wow.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Very much like the bloodhounds that would have been used to track runaway slaves. They’re doing whatever they can to stop him from arriving at the Bureau office. And so he arrives in the Bureau office bloodied from a gunshot wound and attacks by the dogs.

ED: While fleeing, Canara had managed to kill three of those dogs.



ED: Cuff Canara reported everything to the Bureau agent– the assault on his wife, his confrontation with Dan Docking, and the chase itself.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: And the Bureau did what the Bureau was supposed to do. The agent collects the information, and then passes it on to local law enforcement officers.

ED: Wait a minute. Now, we can imagine that the local law enforcement officers are bound to be much more in alignment with the men trying to kill him than they are with Canara, right?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Exactly, but it’s enough to actually get a trial in this case. And so there is a trial. But here’s– to your point about law enforcement and maybe even other people in the community being on Dan Docking’s side. Docking and his accomplices are tried, but the jury declares that the greater crime– so they find them not guilty– and they say that the greater crime was Canara’s killing of the dogs.

ED: Oh no.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: More important than the rapes on Cuff Canara’s wife. More important than the threat to kill or the attempt to kill Cuff Canara. The dogs mattered more.

ED: So it’s amazing, as you say, that Canara knows where he needs to go. It’s 10 miles away, and he’s walking and running all this distance, right?


ED: And he knows that the federal government might be an ally. He’s risking his life really on the belief that they might be. And yet, that’s still kind of nested within this old boys’ network in which people are sort of kin and deeply sympathetic to each other just because they all have white skin. Is that fair to say too?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: That’s fair to say. But again, in Cuff Canara’s mind, the world has still changed. He doesn’t know that there’s going to be a trial. He doesn’t know what the outcome is going to be. What he knows is that the world has changed, and that he should be able to have justice, and he should be able to protect his wife in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to do 18 months, 24 months earlier.

ED: After the court case, do we know what happens to Cuff Canara?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: We do not. He disappears from the records.

ED: So Joanne and Nathan, we’re not really surprised anymore to hear about violence against black men and maybe especially in the South and maybe especially in Reconstruction. But I wonder if you think there are other lessons that we might draw from this other than it was a very hard place to try to be a new American citizen?

NATHAN: Well, sure. The first thing I would see is that the dangers that are facing black women are also equally striking. I mean the fact that Canara is trying to get justice for his wife who was sexually assaulted, and what is her range of options other than to have her husband serve as her proxy at the Freedmen’s Bureau? I mean it’s such a striking example too of yet, again, these laws that are existing on the books have to be made real in kind of flesh and blood terms. So it’s a pretty jarring example on several levels.

JOANNE: We tend to focus, I think, just when we think about history on the making of laws, the creation of laws, putting laws on the books. But the transformation of laws into habits of understanding and assumptions about proceedings, that’s the moment when things really change. And so this story is such a striking example of, on the one hand, people being aware that they’re in a moment of change.

NATHAN: Absolutely. And the amount of courage it takes to be part of that early generation of people who are pursuing their rights. I mean this is one of the most striking things about this period in American history is that these are people who are not at all acculturated to believe in the next election cycle somehow solving their problems.

We tend to hang a lot on our ability to vote for our president or even our local politicians, but this is all being hashed out as they went. And to believe– going back to your point, Joanne– just in the basic habits of effective politics, of above ground process. All of this is uncertain at this period.

JOANNE: And you have to have such faith in the possibility of change to be that courageous to step into the void and do what these people are doing without the assurance that there’s some kind of system that’s going to step up and lay everything out.

ED: I think about this period for a living, and every time I read something like that petition from the Nashville citizens or read about stories like Cuff Canara who risks his life to make it to a court of law. You have to be struck by, once again, this faith in American justice among African-American people that you just wonder where could it have come from.

NATHAN: In spite of the evidence.

ED: Exactly. They’ve seen no indication in their entire history in this country that justice will be theirs, and yet they continue to strive for it. And over the long haul, by striving for it, tend to make it actually happen sometimes.

NATHAN: And that faith was happening in spite of the fact that violence was commonplace, not just immediately after the war, but really for decades thereafter.

ED: Yes, and here’s Kidada Williams again.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: What you have is a lot of everyday violence as former master, former slave are working out the new realities of their post-slavery world. And so violence had been critical to maintain slavery. And what you see is that the former masters are going to have a very difficult time giving that up. The difference is that African-Americans know that slavery has ended, and they believe and understand that enduring the same kind of violence they had to do while they were held in bondage is no longer required of them.

ED: And as sobering as it might be to think about, Cuff Canara’s story is not the worst that could have happened in such a context, right?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And what we see is that when African-American men gain the franchise that the intensity of the violence grows. Because what you start to see are armed raids on African-American political actors, especially men who want to vote or who want to hold office. And they are often attacked in their homes.

They’re held hostage. They and their families are tortured, raped, killed, and no one is spared. Not women, not children, not the elderly, not even people with disabilities.

ED: And so things get steadily worse under Reconstruction. So we can see the story of Cuff Canara, but we don’t know the story of his wife. We don’t know the story of his household. Can you help us understand what it would mean to live in a time and place where that kind of vulnerability to violence was so prevalent?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Well, what you see is that as night riding or these campaigns of terror where armed white men attacked African-Americans in their homes, often in the middle of the night, while family members are asleep, thinking that they’re safe and secure. They hear a knock at the door. They hear the horses galloping through the yard.

Sometimes it’s clear attackers are often stalking their targets. They wait for them to go to sleep. Wait for them to be comfortable in bed at night. And what they testify about is just their inability to escape. They are trapped in this situation, trapped in their homes, the place that’s supposed to be safe.

ED: So many people can imagine the Ku Klux Klan, the images that we have. But night riding was a lot broader than just the Klan. Can you give us a sense of who these men were and what kind of strategies they would have used to inflict this terror?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Well, a lot of the men are, a lot of the people who participate in night riding are ordinary people from the community. They’re from all walks of life, and oftentimes they organize to put African-Americans in their place if they feel as though they are stepping beyond their station. Many of the people who are attacked have a sense of who their attackers are.

ED: They can recognize them by their boots and things like that I’ve read. And as you said, they’re their neighbors, and so they can, maybe somebody’s posture or they recognize their voice. So that’s one reason the Klan would dress up is that their victims would have a good idea of who they were.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: And what we know is that a lot of the victims still know who they are even if they are masked. But what victims often testify about is having had a previous encounter or a dispute or an argument with someone.

ED: And anything where African-American people are sort of where they are just insisting to be paid a fair wage or to be given what they were promised is seen as a great affront to white people. There’s almost nothing that black people can say that’s not seen as a good enough excuse to call out the guns.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Exactly. And a lot of times people say, well, I won’t worry about it because I’m not doing anything that’s going to bring this violence down on me.

ED: Yeah.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: And what they realize, what people come to realize is that the very things they think are going about their normal business as newly freed people represent a threat to the white power structure and can generate an attack. No one is safe. No one is safe.

ED: So how could the white Southerners doing this, many of whom would have prided themselves on their Christian beliefs and on their upstanding characters as citizens, what story could they tell themselves that could justify this kind of violence?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Well, they would tell themselves that they’re protecting their interests. They would say that their needs as white Southerners whose lives have been compromised by the war and emancipation, their rights, their wishes, their needs trump the rights and wishes and needs of a newly freed people.

ED: It doesn’t seem enough to me. It just seems like, do they blame black people for their terrible losses in the war they brought on themselves?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Well, they absolutely blame black people for those losses. And they’re also frustrated because what they see is that outside of slavery, there are people who are able to thrive. They’re starting to buy land. They’re starting to establish their own businesses.

Now, you think about Cuff Canara. Less than a year after slavery is abolished, and think about him had he not had to endure that violence. Give him two or three years. So 1868, 1869. He might have been trying to vote. He might have had a couple of acres of land.

And even the very prospect of African-American men voting and owning their land one, two, three years after slavery has been abolished is an affront. It challenges all of the ideas, all of the lies that slaveholders and wannabe slave holders had told themselves about whiteness, about slavery, about black people.

ED: Yeah. When you’ve lost so much as a white Southerner to watch the people you told yourself for generations were incapable of living on their own now being political leaders and being more successful economically than you, it really does sort of make a lie of everything you think about yourself. Right?

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Exactly. And it’s even, I think, sometimes it’s even worse for those who had not yet become slaveholders.

ED: Yeah.

KIDADA WILLIAMS: Because they had held out hope that if slavery, if the Confederacy had won, that slavery would continue. They would become, they would sort of join the master class. And slavery’s emancipation ends that possibility for them. And for newly freed people to suddenly be able to have land, to have property, and to be running for and holding office is an absolute affront to working class white Southerners who had held out for the promise of becoming slaveholders and land owners themselves.

JOANNE: So Ed, Nathan, it sounds like what we really have here are two tales of Reconstruction. On the one hand, we have the hopeful case of Kate Brown in Washington DC. And then on the other hand, we have the harrowing story of Cuff Canara and the terror of the night riders in the South.

ED: Yeah. And I’m sorry to say that these two stories weren’t as distinct as we might hope. Washington DC does see Reconstruction end. It doesn’t do it with the violence that we see in Louisiana. Instead, white voters across the North just judge that we’ve been focused on Reconstruction and the rights of freed people long enough. It’s time for the nation to turn to some other purpose.

NATHAN: Thanks to Kidada Williams, a historian at Wayne State University and author of They Left Great Marks On Me: African-American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.

JOANNE: We also heard from Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University. She’s the author of An Example For All the Land: Emancipation and The Struggle Over Equality in Washington DC.

ED: Coming up, what lessons we can draw from Reconstruction .

JOANNE: But first, this word from today’s second sponsor.

We’re back, and we’re talking about the legacy of that tricky concept in American history known as Reconstruction.

ED: Reconstruction has a strange capacity, a strange quality that no matter which way you turn it in the light, it can look like a failure. So if you are a person formerly held in slavery, and for that moment– as we saw in the letter from Nashville, Tennessee– you can imagine what an America would look like that treated you fairly, Reconstruction feels like a failure. If you are a Radical Republican in the North who believes that this war can be redeemed by truly creating a union of justice and equality, Reconstruction looks like a failure.

If you’re a former Confederate who believes that, OK, we lost the war, but now we will be reintroduced into the Union as equals, Reconstruction looks like a failure. So Joanne, Nathan, how should we evaluate what we just heard about?

NATHAN: Well, the first thing that jumps out is that you have at the end of the Civil War, and then in the moment of Reconstruction, a sense of deep expectations among African-Americans that they should no longer be subject to physical violence. You have also a set of expectations among Southern whites who were hoping to become part of the master class in the sense of accumulating wealth through slave labor, and that has now been snatched away as a possibility, and that leads to obviously a certain amount of bitterness and inciting of violence that I think really defines much of the experience of the late 19th century South. So it’s a very clear example of how unfilled expectations can lead to violence. But sometimes things even worse than that.

JOANNE: And I’ve got some actually more expectations to throw into this mix. It’s natural, I think, when we’re talking about Reconstruction to think about the people who are trying to make that happen in Washington and the place where it is happening in the South. But what about Northern expectations during Reconstruction?

ED: Yeah, well, you know the expectations are very strong there too. I mean, one baseline expectation is that my sons will not have died in vain. You know the North loses 350,000 men, and the risk is they look at scenes such as those that Kidada explained to us are that what did they die for if the white South is going to be in control of everything again and something much like slavery is going to be re-instituted? What was all that sacrifice for?

NATHAN: Right. Right. Yes, I was thinking too about just the attempt to expand the federal government, the belief that you can use the power in Washington to try to effect some kind of lasting transformation. The parable that constantly jumps out to me about the late 19th century and Reconstruction, of course, is the Freedman’s Bank, this effort to try to create an institution where former slaves can extend their destinies by depositing money, by getting lines of credit. But some 61,000 African-Americans lose almost $3 million in deposits when the bank fails.

JOANNE: Well, expectations of institutions, and then also expectations on an even more fundamental level on laws, policies, enforcement on the most basic level of how a government system is supposed to operate. You have expectations that if a law is on the books in some way–

NATHAN: It’s going to be enforced, right?

JOANNE: You would hope. Yeah.

NATHAN: For sure. For sure.

ED: Well, that leads to the situation where somewhat to their surprise, I think, the Radical Republicans end up pushing the law farther than they thought would be necessary. I don’t think that people thought they would have to create the 14th Amendment and then a 15th amendment to cement their expectations of what defeating the Confederacy in war and ending slavery should have meant.

It’s like this mix in which everybody’s expectations are being defeated at every turn. It’s hard for me to know who gets out of Reconstruction what they expected. And the answer would have to be nobody.


NATHAN: That’s a pretty sobering conclusion. No, but I think it’s actually right. And I think in a lot of ways it kind of explains frankly why the era of the New South, the late 1890s into the turn of the century, looks the way that it does with the constant meting out of other forms of vigilante violence. I think people are actually trying to impose what was not realized.

JOANNE: Well, it was really, it’s such an interesting echo of the initial founding moment. We talked a little bit earlier about this as a moment, a rebooting moment much like the Founding. And this is yet another way in which national power even as it’s being reestablished still is being defined and people aren’t quite sure how far it’s going to reach.

ED: To go back to your point about expectations, Nathan, I think it’s important to remember. And this was what complicates these easy statements about Reconstruction being a failure, sort of a classic midterm exam question– why was Reconstruction? The thing is is that ambition that Kidada talked about about African-Americans exerting right out of slavery never dies despite every obstacle being put in the way of disfranchisement and of violence.

We need to remember that the post-emancipation African-American population of the United States is the most successful post-emancipation population in the Western hemisphere if you measure it by the amount of property that people were able to acquire. If you measure it by the amount of literacy they were able to pass on to their children. If you measure it by the number of institutions that they were able to establish.

So how we balance these things to not basically negate African-American history after Reconstruction by measuring it against the standards of what white people imposed against black people is a tricky thing because you don’t want to act as if you’re not sensitive to all the injustice and suffering. On the other hand, that did not define the entirety of the African-American experience after Reconstruction. They did not give up.

JOANNE: Right, which raises the problem with that midterm question about is Reconstruction a success or a failure? Because what we’re talking about is the problem of measurement. How do you measure something that is, on a human level, on a ground level, making a difference?

That’s not something that’s so easy to measure. I mean, you can measure the enforcement of laws, but everything you’re talking about, which has such a power to it, Nathan, I mean that’s something that’s hard to measure. And yet it has an enormous impact.

NATHAN: Absolutely.

JOANNE: Well, that’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought about the episode or ask us your history questions. You’ll find us at, or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @backstoryradio. And feel free to review the new show in the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

NATHAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez Jamal Millner is our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher.

Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Craig, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach. Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in this episode came from Ketza and Podington Bear.

JOANNE: Special thanks to our voice actor, [? Kai ?] Millner. And as always, to the radio studios at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

ED: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vernon Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, history made everyday.

JOANNE: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.