U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reconstruction Discourse, the Late 1960s, and the Legacy of the Dunning School

For this week’s post, I’d like to say a bit more about what historians were writing about Reconstruction in the 1960s. As I argued last week, this discourse is difficult to separate from the then-prevailing discussions about African Americans and the future of American politics after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Memory of Reconstruction, which in the late 1960s was entangled with both the changes in the historiography of that era and the rise of Black Studies, became a way for African American scholars to remind their readers that America had a chance to finish the job of the first Reconstruction. Before continuing on, I’d like to address the issue of Haiti that arose last week in the comments. It’s a very important one, because it also demands a new research question which, it seems, either hasn’t been answered or hasn’t even been asked. What, exactly, was Haiti in the public memory of African Americans in the 20th century?

I, and others on the blog, were surprised when Bennett stated that the Reconstruction meeting in Charleston that involved a Black crowd was the “first official Western assembly with a black majority” to hold a session.[1] It’s interesting to note, however, that in the book version of these essays, also titled Black Power, there is a subtle change to the wording: “As these men gather, diffident and somewhat unsure of themselves, their words and gestures are recorded by passels of reports, drawn here by the spectacle of the first official assembly in the white Western world with a black majority.”[2] Emphasis added by me to show how Bennett further clarifies the importance of what happened in the South during Reconstruction. Perhaps he remembered Haiti in his revisions of the essays into a book, but regardless, it’s something that further begs the question of Haiti’s importance to the 20th century variant of the Black Freedom Struggle.[3]

Lerone Bennett’s series in Ebony magazine continued through the rest of 1965 and into 1966. He focused on individual Southern states to show the complexity of Reconstruction-era politics in the South. For South Carolina, as an example, he argued that Black leaders were faced with an unenviable task. Such leaders would have to be “both Martin King and Malcolm X” in how they dealt with the unstable mix of politics, power, and race in South Carolina.[4] Bennett was pointing out that the issue of Reconstruction-era Black Power, at least as it pertained to the situation of a majority-Black population in South Carolina and a still-energized white population, required both power and finesse. Bennett’s goal, as one reads either the essays or the book version, is to give voice to newer interpretations of Reconstruction. In the introduction for his book, Bennett argues to bringing back mostly forgotten voices on the history and legacy of Reconstruction. “Within recent years, modern scholars, following the lead of W.E.B Du Bois and other Negro historians, have proved conclusively that the works of (Woodrow) Wilson and other conservative writers were white-oriented distortions of Reconstruction reality,” Bennett wrote. “I have attempted in this brief history to give wider currency to the findings of these scholars.” He also goes on to defend his use of Black Power as a title, arguing that Reconstruction was “the only real period in American history in which black people had real, that is to say effective, power.”[5]

It is interesting to think of these works in light of Kenneth Stampp’s own book Reconstruction that was released in 1965, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. There, Stampp lays out his own version of Reconstruction history. For him, the Dunning School of Reconstruction (which argued that it was a tragic era for white Southerners, only “redeemed” by the electoral results of 1876 and the concurrent paramilitary campaign against the Black Republican vote in the South) was not necessarily incorrect: “Few revisionists would claim that the Dunning interpretation of reconstruction is a pure fabrication.” Instead, what the revisionists had to offer was that “the Dunningites overlooked a great deal, and they doubt that nobility and idealism suddenly died in 1865.”[6] I don’t want to give the impression that Stampp was in any way soft on tackling the problems of Dunning School historiography. He dismisses their claims that white Southerners suffered severely during Reconstruction, especially in comparison with African Americans. He also holds white Northerners as responsible for the Dunning School and the racism often associated with it, due to both sections of the nation needing an “intense nationalism” to fuel sectional unity and the rise of a stronger United States.[7]

For the future I’ll delve a bit more into both Black Power and Black Studies, and how they were influenced by the changes in Reconstruction historiography. I think it’s also interesting to consider how Black historians such as Lerone Bennett and John Hope Franklin were creating, and remembering for the sake of African Americans, this history in the very public place of Ebony magazine. Next week I’ll get a bit more into that aspect of this remembering, and end on a very personal point that, well, explains why the heck I’m a historian in the first place.

EDIT: Thanks to Dan Wickberg for pointing out the correct date of publication for Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction. I was wrongly looking at the fourth printing date instead of the original publication date of 1965. My sincerest apologies.

[1] Lerone Bennett, “Black Power,” Ebony, Nov. 1965, pg. 28.

[2] Bennett, Lerone. Black Power U.S.A.: The Human Side of Reconstruction, 1867-1877. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1967), p. 3.

[3] There’s a good bit on the 19th century and how Haiti becomes a symbol for African Americans. See Matthew Clavin, Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Penn Press, 2011).

[4] Bennett, “Black Power Part III: Post-Bellum Paradise for Negroes,” Ebony, January 1966, pg. 117.

[5] Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., preface.

[6] Stampp, Kenneth. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865-1877. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), p. 9.

[7] Stampp, 13.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There existed a similar bias in early American historiography during the same time, and I think Robert McColley in his neglected 1964 classic, Slavery in Jeffersonian Virginia identified the culprit. He wrote that Jeffersonian studies were under the influence of the giants of progressive historiography: Beard, Turner, and Parrington. (sounds familiar) Professor McColley noted that modern historians tended to Jeffersonian slaveholding as “incidental and separable from their agrarianism.” McColley ends the paragraph by noting the nation was weary of “bloody shirt interpretations of the American Civil War, the progressive historians were soft on slavery and slaveholders and at the same time very hard on capitalists and capitalism.” (McColley, Slavery in Jeffersonian Virginia, 4-5)

    McColley was by the 1980s very much a man of the Right, and yet his historiographical thesis dovetails nicely with Staughton Lynd’s historiographical observations in his Class Conflict, Slavery, and the U.S. Constitution that the historical profession minimized the role of slavery in U.S. history. It was the frontier that was the driving force, or it was the battle between Hamiltonian capitalists and Jeffersonian agrarians that answers every historical question. Questions of race and slavery were not part of what the late Nathan Huggin’s termed the “master narrative” of U.S. history until the Civil Rights era.

    I am looking forward to learning more about your investigations of this era, but I must confess when I see Haiti, I think of the Haitian revolution of the 1790s and early 1800s. When I see Lerone Bennett and Ebony magazine, I think of his 1954 piece, “Mr. Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren,” and the historical profession’s response to that piece.

    • Excellent points! And yes, when I think of Haiti I also think the 1790s and the 19th century. But that particular line that I mentioned, where he originally talked of this Black assembly in South Carolina as the first one of its kind in the Western world–that caught my eye. He changed it for his book, but it led me to think about whether or not Haiti came up in 20th century discourse about Black rights in the USA. We often talk about King, Malcolm X, and others linking the decolonization struggle in Africa to desegregation at home. I’m curious to see if they harkened back not just to Reconstruction but other Black freedom struggles in the Western Hemisphere in the past, most notably in Haiti.

  2. Robert,
    Another great post on the 1960s’ revision/revival of the memory of Reconstruction.
    I was struck by Bennett’s use of an odd blend of the present and imperfect tenses in the passage you quoted. “As these men gather… their words and gestures are recorded…” I’m wondering if that continues elsewhere in Black Power? It’s a very effective way to underline the unfinished quality and nearness of Reconstruction.

    • That’s something I didn’t consider. Frankly I think it does continue in the book, but I’ll double check tonight. Very perceptive!

  3. Robert–
    I’m pretty sure the publication date for Stampp’s book was 1965 rather than 1966. Given the rapidly evolving racial situation in the mid-60s, that might (or might not) be significant, especially since Bennett’s piece that you referenced was published in 1965 as well. Probably one of the most significant attempts to come to terms with the changing nature of Reconstruction historiography was Bernard Weisberger’s 1959 article in the Journal of Southern History: “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography”. that suggests that revision of the Dunning School had been well underway in the 1940s and 50s. Glad to see you pursuing this topic!

    • Thanks for pointing that out. I was looking at the fourth publication date, not the initial copyright. My apologies, I’ll fix that now.

      And I’ll make sure to check out that article! I’m just plunging in to this topic, so the more the merrier. Thanks again!

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