How Black Americans Kept Reconstruction Alive

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.

The Civil War produced two competing narratives, each an attempt to make sense of a conflict that had eradicated the pestilence of slavery.

Black Americans who believed in multiracial democracy extolled the emancipationist legacy of the war. These Reconstructionists envisioned a new America finally capable of safeguarding Black dignity and claims of citizenship. Black women and men created new civic, religious, political, educational, and economic institutions. They built thriving towns and districts, churches and schools. In so doing, they helped reimagine the purpose and promise of American democracy.

For a time after the war, Black Reconstructionists also shaped the American government. They found allies in the Republican Party, where white abolitionists hoped to honor freedpeople’s demands and to create a progressive country in which all workers earned wages. Republicans in Congress pushed through amendments abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and giving Black men the ballot. Congress also created the Freedmen’s Bureau, which offered provisions, clothing, fuel, and medical assistance to the formerly enslaved, and negotiated contracts to protect their newly won rights. With backing from the Union army, millions of Black people in the South received education, performed paid labor, voted in presidential elections, and held some of the highest offices in the country—all for the first time.

Black Reconstructionists told the country a new story about itself. These were people who believed in freedom beyond emancipation. They shared an expansive vision of a compassionate nation with a true democratic ethos.

Those who longed for the days of antebellum slavery felt differently. Advocates of the Lost Cause—who believed that the South’s defeat did nothing to diminish its moral superiority—sought to “redeem” their fellow white citizens from the scourge of “Negro rule.” Redemptionists did more than offer a different story about the nation. They demanded that their point of view be sanctified with blood. They threatened the nation’s infrastructure and institutions, and backed up their threats with violence.

The Redemption campaign was astoundingly successful. Intimidation and lynchings of Black voters and politicians quickly reversed gains in turnout. Reprisals against any white person who supported Black civil rights largely silenced dissent. This second rebellion hastened the national retreat from Reconstruction. Federal troops effectively withdrew from the Confederate states in 1877. White southerners soon dominated state legislatures once again, and passed Jim Crow laws designed to subjugate Black people and destroy their political power.

The official Reconstruction timeline usually ends there, in 1877. But this implies that the Reconstructionist vision of American democracy ceased to exist, or went dormant, without the backing of federal troops. Instead, we should consider a long Reconstruction—one that stretches well beyond 1877, and offers a view that transcends false binaries of political failure and success.

This view allows us to follow the travails of the Black activists and ordinary citizens who kept the struggle for freedom and dignity alive long after the Republican Party and white abolitionists had abandoned it. Black institutions, including the church, the schoolhouse, and the press, kept public vigil over promises made, broken, and, in some instances, renewed during the long march toward liberation. Their stories show that freedom’s flame, once boldly lit, could not be extinguished by the specter of white violence.

The concept of a long Reconstruction recognizes that a nation can be two things at once. After 1877, freedom and repression journeyed along parallel paths. Black Americans preserved a vision of a truly free nation in an archipelago of communities and institutions. Many of them exist today, and continue their work. This, perhaps, is the most important reason to resist the idea that Reconstruction ended when the North withdrew from the South: In a sense, the work of Reconstruction never ended, because the goal of a multiracial democracy has never been fully realized. And America has made its greatest gains toward that goal when it has rejected the Redemptionist narrative.

That the work of Reconstruction continued well after 1877 is illustrated by the life of Ida B. Wells, a woman who witnessed the death of slavery and fought against the beginning of Jim Crow. Wells kept alive the radical ideals of the Reconstructionists and punctured, through her journalism, the virulent mythology peddled by the Redemptionists. When Wells was born—in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862—her parents, Jim and Lizzie Wells, were enslaved. Later that year, the Union army took control of the town while staging an attack on Vicksburg. As they did elsewhere across the dying Confederacy, enslaved people in and around Holly Springs fled plantations for Union lines and emancipated themselves. But freedom proved contingent. Even when Union General Ulysses S. Grant made his headquarters in the town, Black refugees feared reprisals from their former enslavers. Their vulnerability to white violence, even under the watch of Union troops, foreshadowed the coming era.

After the war, Jim and Lizzie Wells chose to stay in Holly Springs. Jim joined the local Union League, which supported Republican Party politics and was committed to advancing Black male suffrage. In fall 1867, when Ida was 5 years old, her father cast his first ballot. Ida remembered her mother as an exemplar of domestic rectitude whose achievements were reflected in her children’s perfect Sunday-school attendance and good manners.

Ida grew up in a Mississippi full of miraculous change. She attended the first “colored” school in Holly Springs, a remarkable opportunity in a state that had been considered the most inhospitable to Black education and aspiration in the entire Confederacy. As a young girl, Ida read the newspaper aloud to her father’s admiring friends; just a few years earlier, it would have been illegal in Mississippi to teach her the alphabet.

In 1874, when Wells was 12, 69 Black men were serving in the Mississippi legislature, and a white governor, Adelbert Ames—placed in office partly by the votes of the formerly enslaved—promised to commit the state to equality for all. Around that time, Mississippi’s secretary of state, superintendent of education, and speaker of the House were all Black men.

The world around Ida was full of fiercely independent and economically prosperous Black citizens. These attainments buoyed her optimism for the rest of her life.

But the idyll of her childhood was brief. Redemptionist forces in Mississippi struck back against Black political power with naked racist terror. In December 1874, a white mob in Vicksburg killed as many as 300 Black citizens after forcing the elected Black sheriff, Peter Crosby, to resign. Massacres and lynchings continued unabated across the state through 1875. By 1876, the number of Black men in the state legislature had fallen by more than half. Following the contested election that year, the new president, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, ordered the remaining active northern troops in the South to return to their barracks. Without the protection of federal troops, and with the symbolic abandonment by the president, Black people were on their own, completely vulnerable to voting restrictions, economic reprisals, and racial violence.

For Wells, the collapse of Reconstruction came at a moment of profound personal struggles. In 1878, her parents and one of her brothers died in a yellow-fever outbreak that killed hundreds in Holly Springs, leaving her, at 16, to care for five siblings, including her disabled sister, Eugenia. After Eugenia died, Wells moved to Memphis at the invitation of an aunt.

Wells’s escape from Mississippi did not protect her from the indignities of racism. In 1883, after a visit to Holly Springs, Wells purchased a train ticket back to Memphis, riding first class on a segregated train. She moved to the first-class car for white ladies after being bothered by another passenger’s smoking, and refused to go back to Black first class. Though barely five feet tall, Wells stood her ground until the white conductor physically removed her. She promptly filed suit and, initially at least, won $700 in damages before her two cases were reversed on appeal by the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

The defeat spurred Wells to find another means of fighting Jim Crow. She longed to attend Fisk University, and took summer classes there. By the end of the decade, she had become the editor and a co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the newspaper founded by the Beale Street Church pastor Taylor Nightingale.

Wells took over editorial duties amid a surge of anti-Black violence, which had remained a feature of the South even after the Redemptionists achieved their goal of removing federal troops from the region. In the 1880s, the incidents began to intensify. In 1886, at least 13 Black citizens were lynched in a Mississippi courthouse, where free Black men were testifying against a white lawyer accused of assault. Attacks on Reconstructionists continued from there. The more that Black men and women engaged in political self-determination—choosing to own homes and businesses, to defend their families—the more thunderbolts of violence struck them. The bloodshed of Redemption was intended to touch the lives of all Black people in the South.

On March 9, 1892, that violence came to Wells’s life, when a mob of 75 white men in Memphis kidnapped three Black men: Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. Moss was an owner of the People’s Grocery, an upstart Black cooperative that competed with the local grocery owned by William Barrett, who was white. The rivalry between the stores had escalated into a larger racial conflict, and Moss, McDowell, and Stewart had been sent to jail after guns were fired at a white mob that had attacked the People’s Grocery. Wells knew Moss and his wife, Betty, whom she considered one of her best friends. She was godmother to their daughter Maurine.

Moss, McDowell, and Stewart were given no due process or trial. Another mob took the men from jail and shot each to death, refusing Moss’s plea to spare his life for the sake of his daughter and pregnant wife. Their bodies were left in the Chesapeake & Ohio rail yard. The white-owned Memphis Appeal-Avalanche documented the horrors as fair justice for the troublesome Black men who had dared to fight white men.

In the Free Speech, Wells wrote a series of editorials decrying the killings and the constant threat of violence that Black Americans faced in the South, and urged northerners to renew their support for full Black citizenship. In one of those editorials, Wells called out the “threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women,” which was the justification for many lynchings. She filed the editorial shortly before a trip to the North. While she was gone, a group of men went to the Free Speech’s offices and destroyed the printing press, leaving a note warning that “anyone trying to publish the paper again would be punished with death.” She chose not to return to Memphis, and continued her campaign from New York.

That June, Wells wrote an essay, “The Truth About Lynching,” in the influential Black newspaper The New York Age. Wells reasoned that most anti-Black violence claimed its roots in economic competition, personal jealousy, and white supremacy. She also dispelled, again, the myth of Black-male sexual violence against white women. Wells pointed instead to the number of mixed-race children in the old Confederacy—evidence of the sexual violence that white men had inflicted on Black women.

Wells’s activism was more than a crusade to end lynching. She traveled the country and Great Britain to describe her vision of multiracial democracy. Frederick Douglass, who had escaped slavery and become the foremost civil-rights activist and journalist of the antebellum and Reconstruction eras, admired Wells and characterized her contributions as a “service which can neither be weighed nor measured.”

Wells first met Douglass in the summer of 1892, when he was 74; Douglass had written a letter to her saying he was inspired by her courage. The two developed a close friendship. “There has been no word equal to it in convincing power,” Douglass wrote of Southern Horrors, a pamphlet Wells published in 1892 based on her groundbreaking anti-lynching essay. The pair corresponded and worked together for the rest of Douglass’s life. With his death, in 1895, a torch was passed.

Wells’s efforts, in a period of racial fatigue among white audiences, helped continue the central political struggle of Reconstruction. She delivered hundreds of speeches, organized anti-lynching campaigns, and worked to galvanize the public against the Redemptionists. Wells told America a story it needed, but did not want, to hear.

Wells’s work also intersected with that of W. E. B. Du Bois, the scholar, journalist, and civil-rights activist who took a forceful stand against lynching. Their relationship was sometimes collegial, sometimes contentious; Wells never found with Du Bois the same rapport she’d had with Douglass. But she supported Du Bois’s then-radical view of the importance of Black liberal-arts education, and Du Bois was shaped by Wells’s advocacy and critiques.

Du Bois viewed the legacy of Reconstruction as crucial to understanding America. At the behest of another Black intellectual and scholar, Anna Julia Cooper, he published in 1935 his monumental Black Reconstruction. The book traced the origins of the violence that Wells denounced. He wrote that “inter-racial sex jealousy and accompanying sadism” were the main basis of lynching, and echoed Wells’s argument that white men’s violence against Black women had been the true scourge of the South. Du Bois also wrote that the Reconstructionists were engaged in “abolition-democracy,” which he defined as a broader movement for social equality that went beyond political rights.

Du Bois’s scholarship paved the way for a reconsideration of the era. He challenged the Redemptionist narrative of venal corruption and Black men who were either in over their head or merely served white northern puppet masters and southern race traitors.

[Read: What if Reconstruction hadn’t failed?]

Du Bois’s work is a starting point for contemporary histories. Eric Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, published more than half a century after Black Reconstruction, added texture to the story of the period, then largely untold. Foner’s work reframed the era as an unfinished experiment in multiracial democracy.

In this tradition of expansion, the historian Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Nation Under Our Feet, published in 2003, widens earlier historical frameworks by looking beyond Reconstruction’s constitutional reforms. Hahn sought out the Black men and women who shaped Reconstruction at the state and local levels. More recently, the historian Kidada E. Williams’s I Saw Death Coming focuses on the daily lives of Black men and women during Reconstruction—witnesses to the violence of Redemption.

All of these works expand our conception of what Reconstruction was, and challenge the notion that the era came to an abrupt ending in 1877. They portray the era as a contested epic, where parallel movements for Reconstruction and Redemption rise, fall, and are recovered.

I first learned about Reconstruction from my late mother, Germaine Joseph, a Haitian immigrant turned American citizen whose love of history could be gauged by the crammed bookcases in our home in Queens, New York. My first lesson on Reconstruction came in the form of a story about Haiti’s revolution. Mom proudly informed me that Haiti had been the key to unlocking freedom for Black Americans: The Haitian Revolution, she explained, led to revolts of the enslaved, frightened so-called masters, and inspired Frederick Douglass.

Later, I found my way back to Reconstruction through an interest in the Black radical tradition, especially post–World War II movements for racial justice and equality. My mentor, the late historian Manning Marable, described the civil-rights movement, and the age of Black Power that followed, as a second Reconstruction. During this time, with a renewed interest in slavery and its aftermath, scholars rediscovered Du Bois’s work.

My research and writing of late has revolved around interpreting the past 15 years of American history, from Barack Obama’s ascent to the White House in 2008, to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election, to the events that followed George Floyd’s murder in 2020. In my 2022 book, The Third Reconstruction, I argued that we might be living through another era filled with the kind of dizzying possibility and intense backlash that whipsawed the South during Wells’s life.

Today’s Reconstructionists have a vision for multiracial democracy that might astonish even Douglass, Wells, and Du Bois. Black women, queer folk, poor people, disabled people, prisoners, and formerly incarcerated people have adopted the term abolition from Du Bois’s idea of abolition-democracy, and now use it to refer to a broad movement to dismantle interlocking systems of oppression—many of which originated in Redemption policy. They have achieved important victories in taking down Confederate monuments; sharing a more accurate telling of America’s origin story and its relationship to slavery; and questioning systems of punishment, surveillance, and poverty.

But today’s Redemptionists have had their victories as well. Their apocalyptic story of the present, one in which crime and moral decay threaten to destroy America, rationalizes a return to a past America and aims to dismantle the Reconstruction amendments that underpin fundamental civil rights. Redemptionists promote a regime of education that reverses the gains historians have made since the revival of Black Reconstruction.

The health of American democracy continues to rest upon whether we believe the Reconstructionist or Redemptionist version of history. Reconstruction, as a belief, as an ideal, outlasted the federal government’s political commitments by decades. Black people, the country’s most improbable architects, continued to make and shape history by preserving this rich legacy, and bequeathing it to their children. Their story has remained the heart of the American experiment both when the country has acknowledged them—and, most especially, when it has not.

This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “The Revolution Never Ended.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.