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Historian Eric Foner Disputes ‘Fake History’ Of Reconstruction Era

Eric Foner [Erin Sibler Photography]
Photo of Eric Foner [Erin Sibler Photography]

Growing up in New York City in the 1950s, Eric Foner said he was taught that the Reconstruction era, which followed the U.S. Civil War, was a failure. “Carpetbaggers” from the North aided by opportunistic Southern “scalawags” came to take advantage of the recently defeated South. These two groups manipulated recently freed Black slaves leading to an era rife with corruption and incompetency.

Foner has dedicated much his career to correcting this mistaken notion Reconstruction was a failure through his work as an academic as well as by authoring numerous books. A professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, Foner is this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Lifetime Achievement winner. This Cleveland-based literary prize is awarded to authors who address racism and diversity through their work.

“This idea of Reconstruction as really the lowest point in the history of American democracy, because African-Americans were suddenly given civil and political rights, that is a total myth. That's what we might call ‘fake history’ today,” he said. “That view was really part of the ideology or the legitimation of the Jim Crow South. It was created by Southern historians or Northerners who adopted that view. It was widely shared in the famous movie ‘Birth of a Nation,’ a little bit of it in ‘Gone With the Wind’ and bestsellers, etcetera,” Foner said.

Jim Crow laws allowed for the segregation of the races, discriminatory hiring practices and made it for difficult for Blacks to vote.

“If you gave Black Americans the right to vote again, you'd have all the horrors of Reconstruction again. In other words, it was part of the legitimation of the second-class citizenship of African-Americans for the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. This is important. It shows why history matters, because it can give you lessons about the present. The lesson of this view of Reconstruction was basically that Black people are inferior and should not be given the basic rights of American citizenship. It was important to overturn that view of history, and it was overturned by me and by many other scholars, as a result of the civil rights era. You could no longer hold those views once the edifice of Jim Crow was destroyed in the 1960s,” Foner said.

While many countries in the Western Hemisphere freed their slaves, Foner said there was something particular about giving slaves their freedom in the United States that helped lead to Reconstruction.

“The United States was the only one where you had a civil war that destroyed slavery, the most titanic war in the history of the Western Hemisphere and certainly in American history here in the United States. It required that march to get rid of slavery because it was so deeply embedded. The slave South of the United States was by far the biggest, wealthiest, most important slave society in world history, maybe since the Roman Empire. The challenge of Reconstruction, of creating a new labor system in the South, a new political system, a new social system, redefining what it meant to be a free American, was always going to be a gigantic challenge. Many other countries didn't face the challenge in quite that depth,” Foner said.

One of the major benefits of seeing the Reconstruction era in a new light has been a greater emphasis on the role African-Americans played in its success.

“Too much of the previous literature and much of the old view of Reconstruction, which basically saw Blacks as ignorant and incapable. Therefore, what's the point of studying them? Today, we understand that African-Americans were key actors in the whole drama of Reconstruction. They helped to set the political agenda by their mass meetings and protests. The period after the Civil War, the first couple of years were sort of like today. People were in the streets all the time demanding their rights. This helped to push the federal government toward a political policy of greater equality. Sixteen African-American men served in Congress during Reconstruction. Their views were important. Their speeches were important. Down to even the basic level of government, justices of the peace, school board officials, local commissioners, African-Americans held all sorts of offices in Reconstruction. By and large, they did a very capable job. The idea that they were all ignorant and corrupt is a total myth,” Foner said.

Foner’s 1988 book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”(HarperCollins), carried a title that proved to be more prescient on numerous issues than he would have imagined when he wrote the book more than 30 years ago.

“The issues of today are Reconstruction issues. Law enforcement and its impact on African-Americans was debated. You had in in 1866, the Memphis riot, the New Orleans riot, which were white assaults on Black communities, often led by the police. Police violence against Blacks is not something that just developed the last couple of years,” Foner said.

The idea of who should be a citizen, voter suppression and homegrown terrorism all continue in the U.S., he said.

“Reconstruction in some ways is still alive because the issues of Reconstruction have never been fully resolved in American society,” Foner said.

The interview with Eric Foner is part of a series featuring the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners.