Black Reconstruction

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First edition cover

Black Reconstruction in America is a book by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. It is revisionist approach to looking at the Reconstruction of the south after its defeat in the American Civil War. On the whole, the book takes an economic approach to looking at reconstruction. The essential argument of the text is that the Black and White laborers were divided after the civil war on the lines of race, and as such were unable to stand together against the white propertied class. This to Du Bois was the failure of reconstruction and the reason for the rise of the Jim Crow laws, and other such injustices.

In addition to creating a landmark work in early U.S. sociology, at the time Dubois’ historical scholarship and use of the techniques of primary source data research on the post war political economy of the former Confederate States’ were equally ground-breaking. He performed the first systematic and rigorous analysis of the political economy of the reconstruction period of the southern states; based upon actual data collected during the period. In chapter five, Du Bois argues that the decision by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working was an example of a General Strike. This type of rhetoric is in concert with his arguments throughout the book that the Civil War was largely a war fought over labor issues.

This research completely disestablished the anecdotal, racist bromides which had come to form the basis of the so-called “scholarship” of the reconstruction period. Dubois’ research discredited forever the notion that the post-emancipation and post-Appomattox south had degenerated into either economic or political chaos, and had been kept in a state of chaos by the armed forces of the Union, through their military occupation.

On the contrary, the reconstruction state governments had for example, established their states’ first, universal primary education systems. They did this because the reconstruction state constitutions (which they had written) had, for the first time, established as a right, the free public primary schooling of their states’ children. These governments had also been the first to establish public health departments to promote public health and sanitation, and to combat the spread of epidemic disease that is inherent in the semi-tropical climate of the south.

And when the redeemer government’s seized power in later years and re-wrote these states’ constitutions to reestablish “race law” and the Jim-Crow system, they did not touch the education and public health and welfare laws and constitutional principles that the reconstruction governments had established.

Critical reception[edit]

The work was not well received by critics and historians at the time. One major point of contention was Du Bois' critique of the way contemporary historians wrote about the role of former slaves during Reconstruction. Du Bois lists a number of books and writers that he felt were misrepresenting the Reconstruction period, and specifically highlights what he felt were particularly racist or ill informed works. Du Bois felt that certain historians were overly concerned with maintaining the "southern white fairytale"[1] instead of accurately chronicling the events and key figures of Reconstruction.

The reception of Black Reconstruction changed dramatically in the 1960s, when numerous historians began to seriously examine it and contemporary works by Alrutheus A. Taylor, Francis Simkins, and Robert Woody.[2] This re-examination ignited a "revisionist" trend in the historiography of Reconstruction, which emphasized black people's search for freedom and the era's radical policy changes.[2][3] Post-revisionist scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s tempered some of these claims by highlighting continuities in the political aims of white politicians before and during reconstruction. However, Du Bois' insistence on the revolutionary character of Reconstruction was reaffirmed by Eric Foner's landmark book on the subject, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.[4] By the twenty-first century, Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as "the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography."[5]

Reconstruction and Its Benefits[edit]

Du Bois's first essay on the topic was Reconstruction and Its Benefits delivered before the American Historical Association on 30 December 1909 in New York City. Du Bois was at that time a professor at Atlanta University, and was sent the money to come to New York by his former teacher Albert Bushnell Hart. William Archibald Dunning, leader of the Dunningites was present at the presentation and spoke of the paper in high terms. The paper was published in the July 1910 issue of The American Historical Review, but had little impact. The overwhelming viewpoint presented by James Pike in The Prostrate State, (1878), was that there had been no benefits from reconstruction. The denigration of African American involvement in the Reconstruction was also evident in Woodrow Wilson's Division and Reunion, 1829 - 1889, (1893), and James Ford Rhodes' History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, (1906). Various Dunningite tracts emerged from Columbia University such as James Wilford Garner's Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901), Walter Lynwood Fleming's Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), Thomas Staples' Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862-1874 (1923), and Charles William Ramsdell's Reconstruction in Texas (1910). Until now Du Bois' assertion that Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University, which President Woodrow Wilson had earlier attended and received his doctorate, were the two major centers where publications with such views were produced, has yet to have any impact even among those who celebrate him as a founder of the social sciences in general, the social sciences from a black, Africa, or Pan-African perspective, and of whiteness studies. ISBN 0-684-85657-3


  1. ^ Black Reconstruction in America, p. 715
  2. ^ a b Foner, Eric (1 December 1982). "Reconstruction Revisited". Reviews in American History 10 (4): 82–100 [83]. doi:10.2307/2701820. ISSN 0048-7511. JSTOR 2701820. 
  3. ^ "During the civil rights era, however, it became apparent that Du Bois's scholarship, despite some limitations, had been ahead of its time." Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser, Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xx. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6. 
  4. ^ Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser, Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xix–xxi. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6. 
  5. ^ "W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1935/1998) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 is commonly regarded as the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography." Bilbija, Marina (1 September 2011). "Democracy’s New Song". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637 (1): 64–77. doi:10.1177/0002716211407153. ISSN 0002-7162. Retrieved 2012-02-25.