The Reconstruction period following the American Civil War lasted barely a dozen years. In that time, chattel slavery was outlawed, African-American men won the right to vote and equal protection under the law, and former slaves assumed elected offices at the local, state, and federal level. But, as the prolific Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts in Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, Reconstruction also laid the groundwork for a vigorous backlash of white supremacist ideology. The roots of freedom promised to African Americans by Reconstruction were not allowed to take hold.
Gates refers to the years between 1877 and 1915 as the Redemption period. While the Southern states recognized the illegality of slavery, there was no recognition that African Americans were equal to whites, and, as Gates illustrates, a combination of religion, science, literature, and racist propaganda, made ubiquitous through the emerging technology of the lithograph, portrayed Negroes as genetically inferior, morally debased, lazy, childlike, and bestial, with devastating effect. The imposition of black codes, rigid Jim Crow segregation, and a surge of lynchings happened in this period. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation — a blistering attack on Reconstruction — in the White House.
“I am arguing,” Gates writes, “that the collective, cumulative effect of these racist images, in addition to other powerful socioeconomic forces, emboldened otherwise law-abiding people to commit the most abominable crimes.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. will discuss his work at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in April 2020 as part of the Arts & Lectures History Matters series.