The Unfinished Revolution — Introduction:
In this episode, we examine different perspectives on the success and failure of Reconstruction.
We look at the African American responses to the Reconstruction as well as African Americans who are taking matters in their own hands by seeking out opportunities on the United States frontier.
Finally, we examine the ideological responses that frame the continued struggle to finish an unfinished revolution.
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African Americans who fought during the Civil War had high hopes of gaining some form of meaningful citizenship. Clearly the outcomes fell well short of their expectations, and by that measure, the Reconstruction was an abysmal a failure. On the other hand, historian Howard Zinn argues that the Reconstruction was never intended to bring about any meaningful change for African Americans. Zinn argues that, as we saw in Episode 8, the success of the Reconstruction lies in what emerges in the South after the Civil War – ongoing control of African American labor in slave like conditions and the rebuilding of a system with all of the economic exploitation of slavery still intact in “post-slavery” America.
Other historians, like Eric Foner, refer to the Reconstruction as an “Unfinished Revolution.” A revolution in which America started down the road toward making America be America for all of its citizens, but fell short before it reached its goal. He argues that the revolution would be made real by future generations of Americans, of a variety of hues.
African Americans Head West
With racism so firmly entrenched in the north and the south, many blacks tried their luck in the West. The West offered opportunities for cheap land and to build communities in the region where racism was not so.
One attractive alternative to sharecropping was work on the cattle ranches of the Southwest. It was difficult work, but it was done in relatively free terrain. It was a largely lawless terrain, but since the law did not typically work in favor of black folks, lawlessness could be an advantage. As a result, there were at least 5000 blacks known to have worked as cowboys in the West.
Militarily, the intersection of African and Native American history is a long and complicated as the two groups have been intertwined in a relationship in which paradoxically success and opportunity for African Americans often comes at the expense of Native Americans and encroachment on native lands. That is the stage at the Buffalo Soldiers step onto.
While one might question the wisdom of Black soldiers serving in the cause of White supremacy, one must also consider the alternative. Sharecroppers saw money typically only once a year at the time of harvest while soldiers received a regular pay a $13 a month in addition to food rations and clothing albeit subpar. Couple that with the relative freedom and autonomy that comes with establishing new communities on the frontier along with the hope that with military service African Americans will finally attain the countries respect and first-class citizenship in the United States.
In the South, people like Booker T. Washington stressed and accommodationist approach that puts civil rights on the back burner and stressed self-sufficiency based in industrial training. To that end he founded the Tuskegee Institute in 1881. He reasoned that by learning a skill such as carpentry or agricultural industry, there was no need to press for first-class citizenship in white America. In other words, he reasoned that rather than pressing for integration into schools or public accommodations, blacks ought to focus on creating their own schools and their own accommodations.
Booker T. Washington articulated his vision for the future in the “Atlanta Compromise” speech delivered at theAtlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895. Washington urged support among wealthy white Americans for African American industrial training saying, in effect if white Americans support African American self-sufficiency and urged white Americans to help put an end to the reign of terror at the Ku Klux Klan had been waging against the black communities and in return, he would deemphasize voting and political empowerment and the black community. He said famously, “We can be as separate as the five fingers, but joined at the hand.”
In contrast to Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois was born in the North in the post-slavery United States. Du Bois grew up in a setting that allowed him to see at least the possibility for racial integration. He embraced the tactics of protest and agitation for systemic change, and was highly critical of Washington’s gradualism accommodationism and acceptance of second-class citizenship.
In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois articulates the evils of slavery and the shortcomings of Reconstruction, but at the same time stresses that slavery should never be forgotten that it is out of slavery that the innate beauty of African American culture was forged. Slavery is what made black folks who they are — slavery is, in effect, The Souls of Black Folk. His ideology expresses a belief that we don’t have to forget the past in order to move forward. That African Americans should not have to deny or forget who they are to be American.