New Orleans It’s a good thing that the Reconstruction era is getting a good look these days, as some of the country comes to grip with the lost opportunities of that period and the long shadow of the Redeemers in the South who lost the war, but won the peace when it came to repressing the rights of former slaves. Recently, I’ve listened to the forever long audiobook Grant, by noted historian Ron Chernow, which revises significantly the former Union general and president’s role in history and in advocating for full citizenship and support for Black Americans. I’ve also recently read, Before the Movement, by Dylan Penningroth and Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class by Blair Kelley, both of which also shed new light on the same period.
Nonetheless, I was still surprised to see the entire recent issue of The Atlantic dedicated to a deep dive on Reconstruction. Props to them. It’s worth the climb and a valuable read. In all honesty, I didn’t read the play. It might be excellent. It’s just not my thing. On the other hand, the rest rocks. I especially liked the piece on “Kennedy and the Lost Cause” and “The Black Roots of American Education.”
JFK takes a beating for trusting his ghostwriters on his popular book, Profiles in Courage, that was must reading for all of us in the 60s. He and his team swallowed the Dunning School of revisionist history that painted the Lost Cause gang as something other than stonecold racists, apologizing for all of the former Confederates. Worse, he made progressive Black Republicans who were charged with making sure the postwar peace brought former slaves to full citizenship and economic sustainability with all manner of crimes and malfeasance. The story centers on former Union General Ames, who was also governor and senator in Mississippi, until voting rights were eviscerated. His great granddaughter is the hero of this piece, but the harm was done and continues.
The piece on education was interesting because it told the story of begone days, when New Orleans led the country in implementing public education and racial integration after the Civil War. The author makes the case that freed people in the city along with abolitionists and postwar governmental officials were critical in establishing the national principle of public education for all. The great school reformer Horace Mann and one of his former Antioch students, Mary Brice, who moved to New Orleans to help make these changes happen before secession, are central players in this tale as real heroes, since their work in the city “served as a model for those who hoped to establish public education in the South.” The Freedmen’s Bureaus was central in expanding the model from New Orleans, and “By 1870, five years after the bureau was established, roughly 78% of children of all races between 5 and 14 were enrolled in public schools.” Of course, their work was undone, thanks to voter suppression, allowing the anti-Black Redeemers in that era’s Democratic Party to take over the legislature and the New Orleans school board. I don’t want to stretch this too far, but it almost seems a precursor to the way the New Orleans school system was taken over by the legislature and charter schools after Hurricane Katrina.
History teaches a lot of lessons, but that doesn’t mean that we learn them.