Lecture 1 - Reconstruction and the Construction of Freedom(1)

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Lecture 1: Reconstruction and the Construction of Freedom – 1856 - 1877 Introduction In the study of history, we think a lot about race, class, and gender. All of these are, to an extent, constructions, but they have tremendous importance in struggles for political, economic, and cultural power. Moreover, they have tremendous importance in contestations over how the meanings and practices of “freedom” are to be “constructed.” For this reason, race, class, and gender dynamics will be recurring themes in this course, starting with Reconstruction. The Reconstruction era, in which the rights of former slaves were a central issue, obviously implicated race. However, it also implicated class in very important ways. As you do read the chapter on Reconstruction and listen to this lecture, I want you to think about not only about how racial and class issues drove the politics of reconstruction, but also about how race and class overlapped and interacted. Another way of phrasing this could be “how did questions of economic rights (which tend to involve questions of social class) affect issues of racial democracy during Reconstruction?” I. The Immediate Aftermath of the Civil War The South at the End of the War Social and economic devastation o Great loss of life—approximately 260,000 Confederate men died in the Civil War, which represented almost 1/5 of the adult male population of the southern states o This loss of life, in addition to the widespread destruction of farms, animals, and equipment, resulted in economic devastation in the aftermath of the war Black Society in the Immediate Aftermath of the War Religions Blacks established their own churches, free of white supervision and control o Black churches played a pivotal role in community education, social cohesion, and politics. Churches were central to the cultivation of black political leaders Education Freedmen were also eager to obtain education—thousands of blacks enrolled in schools established by northern missionary societies, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and by ex-slaves themselves. The first black colleges were also created during reconstruction. II. Competing Visions of the Content and Meanings of Freedom Blacks’ Conceptions of Freedom
Tied closely to land ownership. Having been forced to work land they did not own, freedmen, like rural people the world over, saw land ownership as a key element in freedom—Economic autonomy crucial to freedom o Freedmen understood that, if land remained under the control of their former masters, blacks in the South would have little choice but to go back to work for white plantation owners o Land ownership also had a component of social and cultural freedom for blacks: With their own land, blacks would be able to develop their own communities free of white control o Grounding this vision, from a moral perspective, was the belief of many former slaves that the work they had done on the land as slaves now entitled them to possession of that land.

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