Juneteenth —which marks the final emancipation of enslaved individuals by the Union army— is now a federal and Connecticut holiday after Gov. Ned Lamont’s signature on May 27.
As my students recently evaluated in their social studies class, the road to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a complex one, involving work from abolitionists, progressive Republicans and, most importantly, enslaved people themselves.
Although Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Army of the Potomac on April 9, 1865, it was not until June 19, 1865 that Union soldiers liberated the last enslaved people still held captive in distant Texas (technically speaking, enslavement wasn’t legally ended until the December 6 ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution). While Juneteenth recognizes that specific moment in Galveston Bay, the history of emancipation isn’t complete without a full understanding of what followed. With Juneteenth becoming a Connecticut holiday in 2023, this year is the perfect time to honor its legacy by learning about what came after liberation—the Reconstruction Era.
Reconstruction, usually considered the period from 1865-1877, is an often-forgotten part of American history. The Union victory in the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment ended de jure enslavement, but didn’t specify what that freedom would look like. Would freedmen be fully integrated into the civic, economic, and political fabric of the United States? Would the Union’s victory eradicate the southern planter class and bring about greater economic equality and the world’s first multiracial democracy?
These were no small questions. After the war so-called “Radical” Republicans and their Black allies in the South attempted to create that multiracial democracy. Congress passed a series of critical amendments and laws to defend freed men’s political rights, including the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and various Civil Rights Acts.
During this period over 2,000 African Americans served at all levels of Southern governments, and multiracial coalitions worked to rewrite southern constitutions and improve the lives of their citizens by creating the region’s first public schools and reforming their prisons. By 1868 South Carolina had the first majority-Black legislature in American history, and culturally and socially, African American schools and churches began to flourish. Unfortunately, this situation did not last.
Almost immediately after Appomattox, former Confederates (aided and abetted by President Andrew Johnson) formed paramilitary groups such as the the White League, Red Shirts, and Ku Klux Klan and, along with their allies in the Democratic Party, ushered in a reign of terror and violence in a quest to reimpose white supremacy. Murder and intimidation against freed blacks and their white allies became rampant, even resulting in public massacres. In Memphis in 1866 white mobs murdered 46 black residents, wounded 75, and destroyed 90 homes, while in New Orleans that same year white supremacists attacked the multiracial Louisiana Constitutional Convention, murdering as many as 200 black Union veterans.
In Colfax, Louisiana in 1873 a white mob murdered 150 African Americans in order to nullify election results from the previous year, and in Wilmington, N.C. in 1898 an organized attack by 2,000 white supremacists murderously deposed the duly-elected government in an open coup d’etat.
In addition to the violence, states passed laws known collectively as “Black codes,” which attempted to bring back de facto slavery. Ultimately, Southern recalcitrance and violence combined with northern indifference (Connecticut voted for Democrat Samuel Tilden, an opponent of Reconstruction, in the 1876 presidential election) ended Reconstruction and killed America’s first attempt at true democracy.
Juneteenth’s inaugural celebration in 1866 —occurring one month after the massacre in Memphis and one month before the one in New Orleans— has to be understood in the context of the triumphs and tragedies of the Reconstruction Era. For those of us who did not grow up immersed in Juneteenth’s history, understanding this context is a great first step towards fully appreciating the day’s larger meaning.
Learning about Reconstruction has not always been easy. For years the dominant historiography (with notable exceptions) parroted Southern “Lost Cause” propaganda and portrayed it as a time period when corrupt Blacks and their white allies oppressed the South. Many school curriculums either taught this version of events or ignored the time period altogether.
Fortunately, there has been a flood of high-quality work on the era over the past 25 years. For more scholarly books, I’d suggest Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and W.E.B. DuBois’s classic (and contemporaneous) Black Reconstruction in America.
For a more manageable starting point, I’d recommend the recent PBS four part documentary Reconstruction: America after the Civil War, which is at once historically deep and accessible. And for those who need something they can listen to as they go to work or do chores around the house, Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion’s Slate Plus Reconstruction podcast is a good starting point.
James Baldwin famously said “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history,” and that involves actually knowing our history. Being allies in the fight for equality and democracy does not end with learning, but it’s a requisite first step. Reconstruction failed not because it was destined to, but because states like Connecticut grew weary of defending a more just union.
The “moral arc of the universe” isn’t guaranteed to bend towards justice—it needs to be continuously fought for. Reconstruction’s legacy is a call to protect what Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens’ epitaph called the “equality of man before the Creator.”
This Juneteenth, begin honoring the new holiday by learning about the generation of formerly enslaved people and their white allies that fought to move beyond emancipation and make equality and democracy a reality in the United States.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.