While the Civil War gets all the glory of movies, celebrations, and heroics, Reconstruction is rendered a sad story. It’s a tragedy. It’s a travesty. Healing defeated justice. Dreams were deferred. It led to the “nadir” of black history. I hate sad stories, even though I often find myself writing or talking about them as a scholar, and I particularly hate leaving my students depressed. So to discuss Reconstruction, I forced them to address who the heroes of Reconstruction were and what successes matched the obvious failures. They used the Major Problems documents, and we had a great conversation. I learned that some of them are already thinking like historians.
Here’s what I my found out from the class. First, the NCAA can be a frustrating organization and that my scholar-athletes have yet to receive the funds to purchase their classroom books. Ugh. Second, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was right to challenge abolitionists for their unwillingness to move on women’s rights. Third, Lucy McMillan of South Carolina was cool for testifying against the Klan. Here was a case where the government listened directly to a former slave. Fourth, national reconciliation was nice, but not at the expense of rights for African Americans. So far, so good.
What was most impressive about the discussion was that many of my students wanted to judge the past on its own merit. When I asked “was Reconstruction a success,” one said “no, because so many established goals went either unrealized or warped.” Tell me more, I encouraged. This young woman then went through Thaddeus Stevens’s calls for land redistribution and legal rights, and how those were overwhelmed. She detailed how the 15th Amendment was worked around, and how rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” went under assault. What a great answer! She didn’t use her contemporary understanding of right and wrong; she used criteria from the past. Hooray!
Finally, I learned that none of my students – none of them – cared about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. None of them recalled Bill Clinton’s hearings and none of them thought it was important. So for future renditions of Major Problems, I’m thinking maybe the document on impeachment should be ditched. What would be a good replacement? Any ideas? I was thinking about maybe a diary or journal entry from out West that somehow connected to the impeachment.