The Reconstruction of a False Story

When I was in the seventh grade, or eighth, or maybe it was ninth, I was presented with a brief bit on Reconstruction. The gist: Reconstruction was a terrible time in American history, terrible in part because a number of black men held political office and, boy, oh, boy, did they made a mess of things with their corruption, their ignorance.



When I was in the seventh grade, or eighth, or maybe it was ninth, I was presented with a brief bit on Reconstruction. The gist: Reconstruction was a terrible time in American history, terrible in part because a number of black men held political office and, boy, oh, boy, did they make a mess of things with their corruption, their ignorance.

I don’t remember teacher contradicting the textbook. All I remember is shame, hurt, humiliation, clueless back then about the real story of black resilience and triumph during one of America’s most challenging periods in history, a period that followed that great reckoning, the Civil War.

And I just ate that shame, hurt, and humiliation. Didn’t ask another teacher about it, didn’t talk to my parents about it. And it didn’t help that I was in an overwhelmingly white school, where so many students came from money, where there were only two of “us” in my class. And if memory serves, the other black girl took history with a different teacher.

As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Not only was I not left deeply scarred, but also there was something within that kept me curious about Reconstruction, something within telling me there had to be more to the story and, sure enough, I discovered that Reconstruction, one of the most complicated and misunderstood eras in American history, was a time of epic efforts—of triumphs—on the part of people from different spheres committed to America catching up with its creed, a time when great progress was made on some fronts. It started when I stumbled upon a mention of W.E.B. Du Bois’s massive tome Black Reconstruction.
 

No more shame. No more hurt. No more humiliation.
 

That’s what truth can do. That’s what reading books that assume the humanity, the dignity of black people, can do — they can illuminate the true stories of the black women and men whose brains and brawn, guts, grit, and visions helped build America.

Out of Reconstruction came the Thirteenth, Fourteenth Amendment, and Fifteenth amendments, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1875. Reconstruction gave rise to free public schooling for all in some parts. And in this still struggling, still flawed, but expanding democracy, legions of black people became masters of their own destinies. They made gains for themselves and contributions to the nation as property owners, as officeholders (from Congressmen and state legislators to judges and superintendents of schools).

Sadly, tragically, opposition to a forward-looking nation was fierce. Through violence (from beheadings to burnings) and other acts of evil, the nation slid back. Progress was replaced by Jim Crow, a colossal waste of resources and human potential.

The money and time spent on putting up separate water fountains, separate rest rooms, separate schools.

The children, black and white, who went without schooling for years in some parts of the South after the Brown decision (1954) because integration was so odious to the powers that be.

And there was the toll on human psyches: so many black people finding it hard not to believe that they were not inferior. So many white people finding it hard to believe that they were not superior and convinced that they could not learn something from the minds, the hearts, the souls of black folk.


And where did all this get us as a nation?
Just think if strong Brotherhood had risen instead of Jim Crow.


But I have hope. This is why I was eager (and honored) to go back through, to work with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow, a story of powerful, painful and, at so many turns, horrifying days.

But we can handle it—and we must—and so can our young people— if we and they read with minds on the rewards that await: freedom from myths, narrow-mindedness, ignorance—the list is long—and if we and they understand that the point of learning true stories from the past— true stories of people who inhabited that past—is to use it!

Use it to forge a better future.

Use it to keep our eyes on that prize of “a more perfect Union.”
 

Tonya Bolden is the award-winning author of many notable books for children and young adults, among them the Coretta Scott King Author Honor-winning Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl, which was also a James Madison Book Award Winner and CCBC Best Book of the Year. Ms. Bolden's Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year and is the recipient of the Carter G. Woodson Book Award. Ms. Bolden is a two-time NAACP Image Award nominee, and Winner of the 2016 Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC's Nonfiction Award for Body of Work. She is the co-writer of Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights diverse books for all readers. Find out more and download the catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Anh Do, Sayantani DasGupta, book giveaways and more.

 

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