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TeachNYPL: Reconstructing Reconstruction (Gr. 11-12)


Anarchy in Arkansas - The Brooks-Baxter War 1874
NYPL Digital Collections Image ID #813756

Is an event remembered for what happened—or for how it was recorded?

The Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) in United States History from the time of Lincoln's first Reconstruction program, the Ten Percent Plan, in 1863 to the Compromise of 1877, was contentious period both politically and socially. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the way Reconstruction has been remembered and taught in U.S. schools has reflected the still divisive and lingering attitudes about the period, even long after it officially ended.

This Unit, for Grades 11-12, is a historical analysis of how school textbooks tell the story of the Post-Civil War Era, focusing on the evolution of how U.S. History textbooks interpret the history of Reconstruction. Trends in textbooks teaching include the shift from the ‘Dunning’ school of thought (in which African Americans were seen as minimal or obstructionist players in Reconstruction) to the more modern view from the 1970s onwards, which included the reintroduction of notable events omitted in earlier textbooks, such as the Brooks-Baxter War in 1872 (seen on right) that ultimately led to the end of Reconstruction in Arkansas two years earlier than the rest of the country.

What this analysis of textbooks will demonstrate to students is how historical developments that emerged from Reconstruction-from the three Amendments to the sharecropping system-resonated in America long after Reconstruction was officially over. In addition, this Unit introduces students to Historiography—the study of historical writing.

This Unit falls within the Grades 11-12 range for a Social Studies and History classroom, including Scope and Sequence Grade 11 US History and Government Industrialization of the United States: The Reconstructed Nation. However, this Unit can be easily expanded to a range of Grades 9-12 by selecting less complex text excerpts or through shorter text selections-which is helpful for schools teaching U.S. History in the 9th grade. The Lexile range of the documents is 1020-1370, which is inclusive of 9th through 12th grades. This will allow for teachers to differentiate their lesson plans to accommodate for students with a range of learning levels and reading comprehension abilities.

In terms of background knowledge, students will need to know the reasons for fighting the Civil War, especially how the issue of slavery was the central reason for the conflict. They also need to know that Dunning School texts were written during the period of Jim Crow, when the political rights of African Americans were legally restricted on the local and state levels. Finally, students should have prior knowledge on Reconstruction from their study of it as part of the eighth grade curriculum.

Lastly, in this Unit students will be looking at older textbooks as historical documents – primary source material from a particular historical period. As such students will need to understand what a ‘primary source’ is, and when and how something like a textbook – originally a secondary source – becomes a ‘primary source.’ This Unit directly correlates to the Grade 11-12 Common Core State Standards for understanding primary and secondary sources.

The principle questions for this topic are:

  • Is an event remembered for what happened or for how it was recorded?
  • How did textbooks record Reconstruction during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era?
  • How have textbooks changed their narrative of Reconstruction?

The Dunning School of Reconstruction (1900-1970)

The Dunning School of thought is named after Columbia University professor William Archibald Dunning (1857–1922) and his view of the history of Reconstruction. These resources share that viewpoint, which states that the primary purpose of Reconstruction was to quickly reunite the United States after the Civil War, while maintaining the social hierarchy of the pre-Civil War era, where Southern whites maintained dominance over newly freed African Americans. Although these sources were written as secondary sources at the time of their publication, their historical perspective makes them useful only as primary source doucments to understand contemporary views of Reconstruction.

New Grammar School History of the United States (1903) by John Bach McMaster is a primary source for the purpose of this collection because it is included to show how U.S. History textbook from the Progressive Era reflected a significantly biased viewpoint. This point of view often did not accurately reflect the actual events which took place during Reconstruction, such as calling the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 the “Force” Act, not the Enforcement Act of 1871, which was the law's actual name. Using the term “Force” Act versus Enforcement Act gives very different meanings to this law’s goal. The point of view stresses the importance in quickly unifying the United States after the Civil War, while portraying African Americans and many Republicans as delaying this process. McMaster focuses on the political aspects of Reconstruction and the simultaneous economic struggles which the United States went through during the Reconstruction era. A key question is: What aspects/events of Reconstruction are not included in this textbook?

A School History of the United States (1904) by William Harrison Mace is a primary source as it is used in this collection because it is included to show how U.S. History textbook from the Progressive Era reflected a significantly biased viewpoint. This point of view often did not accurately reflect the actual events which took place during Reconstruction, such as claiming that African Americans proved themselves unfit to govern, and made it harder for some to believe that they would ever learn to do so, when the performance of Hiram Revels and many other African Americans who worked in government proved otherwise. The point of view stresses the importance in quickly unifying the United States after the Civil War, while using extremely negative stereotypes of African Americans and many Republicans, seen as delaying the process of healing the United States. Since the book's format is similar to that used by current textbook, The Americans, Mr. Mace's text is a good example to use when comparing/constrasting the Dunning School of thought with the Revisionist History of Reconstruction. A key question is: How can this text be so similar to The Americans in format, but so different in content?

The Building of Our Nation (1937) by Eugene Campbell Barker, Henry Steele Commager, and Walter P. Webb is a primary source because it is included in this collection to show how textbooks reflected a significantly biased viewpoint. Reading the book, one would not know that Reconstruction ends with the election of Hayes as president in 1876, for instance. Instead, the historical discussion of Reconstruction ends with the decline of Klan power in the 1870s. However, the book does discuss carpetbaggers and scalawags, albeit from a biased viewpoint. For teachers of Reconstruction, the game on page 408 in the book sounds quite useful as a review activity for any topic in U.S. History. A key question for this book is: Why would the noted liberal historian Henry Steele Commager take such a conservative view of Reconstruction?

A History of the United States (1931) by Ephraim Douglass Adams and John C. Almack is the second of the primary sources in the collection from the 1930s, showing how textbooks still reflected a significantly biased viewpoint. The point of view unfairly negatively depicts Northern Republicans and African Americans during the Reconstruction Era. The chapter's structure is more in line with the format of recent textbooks, including a section near the end of the chapter, which discusses the election of 1876 and the "quiet bargain" made to give the election to Rutherford B. Hayes. An interesting part of the conclusion is that the last paragraph acknowledges that the issues of rights, status, development, and destiny were unsolved problems at the time the book was published. A key question is: How is this text part of the bridge in the evolving Reconstruction narrative?

Out of the Past: A Topical History of the United States (1969) by Donald Gawronski is the last of the U.S. History textbooks in the collection. Like the other four textbooks, Gawronski writes with a significant amount of bias. This source is unusual in how it organizes history - in a thematic manner - which is different than most textbooks, including current monographs. Regarding the narrative of Reconstruction, the textbook literally ends its discussion with the demise of the Ku Klux Klan by 1880. A key question is: Why the source does not include the last five years of Reconstruction from 1872-1876?

Revisionist Views of Reconstruction (1970-present)

Starting in the early 1970s, U.S. History textbooks underwent revisions in the narrative of Reconstruction. The period after the Civil War was now viewed as a time of potential, when African Americans experienced temporary economic, political, and social changes while the federal government provided the necessary support. Temporary is the key term, because economic problems, scandals, an activist Supreme Court that acted against many of the Reconstruction laws, and a Southern power structure intent on regaining its pre-1860 dominance all contributed to end Reconstruction by 1877, ushering in the era of Jim Crow, segregation, sharecropping, and virtually no political power.

Liberty and Union: A History of the United States (1971) by Raymond Jackson Wilson is a secondary source, representing an early example of the revisionist narrative for Reconstruction. Published just two years after Out of the Past, it has a very different format and narrative, but one that most closely resembles what is found in U.S. History textbooks used by current high school students. This is not surprising, because the seventies saw changes within the African American community over how they viewed themselves, so it’s understandable that textbooks would also be undergoing changes as well. For instance, the language in Liberty and Union is much more reflective of modern sensibilities and its approach to the story of Reconstruction is much more even handed, without vilifying Radical Republicans and African Americans. A key question is: How is this textbook blazing a new path for students' understanding of Reconstruction?

The Americans (2012 current ed.; 1998 1st ed.) by Gerald Danzer, J. Jorge Klor de Alva, Louis E. Wilson and Nancy Woloch is a secondary source. It was selected because this textbook is the standard source for many U.S. History classes in New York, to the point that there are two editions available, one being a New York State one. The collection doesn’t use the full textbook, but a truncated online version of the New York State The Americans textbook. The provided link goes directly to the chapter on Reconstruction. This version contains the essential information about Reconstruction, with some of the current interpretations of the Reconstruction era. The hardcover textbook provides more analysis of the Reconstruction era. A key question is: How does this textbook's telling of Reconstruction differ from versions seen in the first 50 years of the twentieth century?

Digital History (2013) by S. McNeil and S. Minz is an online secondary source. This online history of the United States is a good substitute for an actual U.S. History textbook. Within each historical era – including Reconstruction – Digital History provides primary source documents, a timeline, key people, music, images, etc. Perhaps the most important aspect of the website for the purpose of this collection is the online textbook, because it presents a revisionist history of Reconstruction while debunking some of the myths involving Reconstruction, such as the portrayal of carpetbaggers and scalawags. A key question is: How does this site dispel the myths of Reconstruction?

Stereotypes, Distortions and Omissions in U. S. History Textbooks (1977): A Content Analysis Instrument for Detecting Racism and Sexism, Supplemental Information on Asian American, Black, Chicano, Native American, Puerto Rican, and Women's History by The Council on Interracial Books for Children Racism and Sexism Resource Center for Educators is a secondary source, which focuses on how U.S. History textbooks use stereotypes, distortions, and omit history for many racial minorities and women. It has several pages dedicated to a discussion of Reconstruction and how contemporary textbooks used a narrative which did not accurately present the role and actions by African Americans and the Reconstructionist governments during that period. The African American Textbook Checklist in the back of the book provides a more nuanced view in examining aspects of African American history within the Reconstruction era. A key question is: Why textbooks distort and omit certain aspects of Reconstruction?

America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979) by Frances FitzGerald is a secondary source which provides the historiography of Reconstruction in textbooks throughout the twentieth century. FitzGerald points out the errors and stereotypes that the contemporary recounting of the historical narrative of Reconstruction. She does this by first presenting the contemporary history as fact, then comparing it to the revisionist history to highlight the pro-Southern and anti-African American and Northern biases that exist in the contemporary versions from the time period. A key question is: Why was the old narrative accepted for such a long period of time?

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit:

History/Social Studies: Reading History

R.H.11.1 – Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

R.H.11.2 – Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

R.H.11.3 – Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.

R.H.11.4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.

R.H.11.6 – Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.

R.H.11.8 – Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

R.H.11.9 – Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

History/Social Studies: Writing & Thinking Skills

WHST.11.1 – Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.

Historical Thinking Skills (HTS): Students will be able to differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations

Want to use these texts in the Classroom?

Excerpts of two of these texts - the New Grammar School History of the United States (representing the Dunning School) and The Americans (representing the revisionist contemporary school) - are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Task Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: Reconstructing Reconstruction Gr. 11-12 (PDF). This Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. In addition, this Unit includes a Document Analysis worksheet (pg. 12-13) for student to fill out as they examine the textbook excerpts. This Texts and Task Unit includes information on text complexity, additional text dependent questions, and a recommended performance task for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards. For this Unit, an instructor could use excerpts from other Dunning School text mentioned above as a constrast to another revisionist contemporary text mentioned above—such as Digital History—to complete the Recommended Performance Task.

Final Focus:

This collection was compiled with multiple purposes in mind. Students would learn about the history of Reconstruction, but through being able to examine the historical errors and stereotypes that occupied many U.S. History textbooks throughout much of the twentieth century. Perhaps students will also question or look at the information presented in their textbook in a new light. The final purpose of the collection is to give students an expanded definition of what can be classified as a primary source, since some of the textbooks fall into this category, despite being written thirty years or more after the end of Reconstruction.

Additional Resources:

Resource List for this Unit: List compiles all the documents and textbook exercpts mentioned above that represent the changing narrative in twentieth century textbooks on the Reconstruction era. This list of books can be used to accompany Common Core Standards CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH 11.1-4, 6, 8 & 9 along with WHST.11.1 and Historical Thinking Skills. In addition, this list can be used for Scope & Sequence Grade 11 Unit 3: Industrialization of the United States.

'Reconstruction' Primary Sources: Search the NYPL Digital Collections for additional primary sources on and about Reconstruction, including original photographs of original African-American Convention mebers, voter registration maps, political cartoons, and images of 1st Black Legislatures.

'Reconstruction' Reading List: includes secondary sources for understanding the causes and events surrounding Reconstruction for an extended grade range (Gr. 6-12), such as Cause: Reconstruction America (1863-1877) by Tonya Bolden, plus suggestions for classroom reading, such as the new historical fiction title, Brotherhood by A. B. Westrick.

Teaching with Primary Sources: from the Library of Congress; includes comprehensive guides on teaching for K-12 classrooms with primary source material, as well as subject specific suggestions for teaching a topic like the Civil War with primary sources, and how teaching with primary sources meets Common Core State Standards. Also includes Teacher's Guides and Analysis Tool for Primary Sources.

Cause: Reconstruction America 1863-1877 by Tonya Bolden and Brotherhood: A Novel by A. B. Westrick

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions, lesson plans, and other educational resources in the comments below.

NYPL Education Innovation Institute Reconstruction Lesson (PDF).pdf

Mordecai Moore is a high school social studies teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a first cohort member of the New York Teaching Fellows. Teaching has been Mordecai's passion for the past 13 years, watching his students learn to love history, whether it's in the classroom or through participating in New York City History Day. Personally, Mordecai is a native New Yorker who loves exploring the city's history, culture, and rooting for its professional sports teams. Now as a father, Mordecai looks forward to doing more of this with his family.



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