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Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction
From one of our most distinguished historians, a new examination of the vitally important years of Emancipation and Reconstruction during and immediately following the Civil War–a necessary reconsideration that emphasizes the era’s political and cultural meaning for today’s America.
In Forever Free, Eric Foneroverturns numerous assumptions growing out of the traditional understanding of the period, which is based almost exclusively on white sources and shaped by (often unconscious) racism. He presents the period as a time of determination, especially on the part of recently emancipated black Americans, to put into effect the principles of equal rights and citizenship for all.
Drawing on a wide range of long-neglected documents, he places a new emphasis on the centrality of the black experience to an understanding of the era. We see African Americans as active agents in overthrowing slavery, in helping win the Civil War, and–even more actively–in shaping Reconstruction and creating a legacy long obscured and misunderstood. Foner makes clear how, by war’s end, freed slaves in the South built on networks of church and family in order to exercise their right of suffrage as well as gain access to education, land, and employment.
He shows us that the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and renewed acts of racial violence were retaliation for the progress made by blacks soon after the war. He refutes lingering misconceptions about Reconstruction, including the attribution of its ills to corrupt African American politicians and “carpetbaggers,” and connects it to the movements for civil rights and racial justice.
Joshua Brown’s illustrated commentary on the era’s graphic art and photographs complements the narrative. He offers a unique portrait of how Americans envisioned their world and time.
Forever Free is an essential contribution to our understanding of the events that fundamentally reshaped American life after the Civil War–a persuasive reading of history that transforms our sense of the era from a time of failure and despair to a threshold of hope and achievement.read more
Eric Foner begins this excellent short elaboration of his earlier book (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877) with the observation that, in spite of the biblical proportions of the transformation of four million slaves from bondage to citizenship, “this critical moment in our nation’s history has failed to establish itself in the national memory, at least with any accuracy or full depth of understanding.” Because of this omission, he charges, problems with race remain that have never been fully addressed.Foner charges that the legacy of the Civil War developed into “a fascination with the valor of combat,” a war of “noble tragedy pitting brother against brother.” Black Americans are relegated to a minor role. This characterization dominates the history, memorialization and discussion of the Civil War and post-Civil War period. Largely obliterated is the service of some 200,000 African Americans in the Union army and navy; the vast exodus of southern slaves to northern lines as the Union came through; the excitement over freedom by African Americans; their desire to work, own land, engage in civic activities, vote, and above all, to get educated; and the violent suppression of those aspirations.Most school children come to understand Reconstruction as a period of scalawags, carpetbaggers, and ignorant, easily-manipulated freed blacks. It was widely believed that blacks were lazy and would not work, and prone to committing crimes. But the truth is much more complex. Freed slaves were denied their own land as they had been promised (“40 acres and a mule”) and were forced to sign punitive contracts that obligated them and their families to work from sun-up to sunset for whites who might or might not pay them. Only after this labor could they work their own little plot of land to feed their families. Naturally they had more interest in working on the latter than the former. Black men also did not want their women working in white houses, given the history of white sexual exploitation of black women. These attitudes on the part of blacks were translated for public consumption as “lazy.”Additionally, laws were enacted in the South such as Mississippi’s infamous “pig law” defining the theft of a farm animal as grand larceny. Black men once free soon found themselves imprisoned for minor offenses - often the hapless victims of false accusations - and on chain gangs. Thus with such techniques did whites manage to return the South to a system of cheap, forced labor done by disempowered blacks. And still, with all that, blacks tried to make better lives for themselves, to run for office, to protest conditions, and improve their education. There was one final recourse for Southerners, and that was violence. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866, and other ad hoc groups, did not even feel the need for disguises when they began their reign of terror. In the first half of 1871, the KKK destroyed 26 schools in one county in Mississippi alone. There were some three thousand victims of lynchings carried out between 1882 and 1930, 88 percent of which were African American men, most of whom charged with offenses such as self-defense, effrontery, or sexual offenses against white women (generally found to be false or so harmless as to be ludicrous). Others who were lynched included white shopkeepers or schoolteachers thought to be treating Negroes “fairly” or speaking up for their civil rights.Foner stresses that the North was complicitous in these crimes: “they could not have taken place “without the full acquiescence of the North.” Labor unrest by immigrants in the North made Northerners nervous about setting a “bad precedent” by giving more rights to black workers. Moreover, by the late 1800s, racism was acquiring the “scientific” imprimatur of social Darwinism, phrenology, and other dubious, later-discredited disciplines. Political compromises sealed the South’s fate. (Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner of a disputed election in 1876 after agreeing to restore full local autonomy to the South.)“Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free reign to exercise police powers over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age.These practices helped structure the commemorative patterns that came to inform the dominant narratives of our history, and which thus kept alive the negative stereotypes of Reconstruction. Combined with pictures, statuary, and movies, Southerners have been determinative in structuring a mix of affect and information that reinforces the view they chose to promulgate of the Civil War and its aftermath. These images and narrative constructs in turn legitimated discriminatory political policies and practices. That blacks have had so many fewer opportunities to accumulate wealth and property over the generations, that they have suffered generations of economic disempowerment and educational disadvantage, that their family structures continue to be assaulted by disparate imprisonment standards, are conveniently forgotten. Rather, the popular narrative of self-responsibility and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps dominates the discussion of the persistent disparities between black and white.Foner bemoans the fact that “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, what is remarkable is both how much America’s racial situation has changed, and how much it remains the same.” For example, school segregation is once again on the rise, now because of housing patterns and the divide between urban and suburban school districts rather than laws. The black prison population is eight times higher than that for whites, in part because of sentencing disparities that favor white patterns of drug use over black. And as Foner explains, twenty-nine states deny the right to vote to those on probation and those who have ever served in prison for a felony, disenfranchising an estimated one-seventh of the black male population.Foner implores us to reexamine Reconstruction and its effects, to help challenge the dominant narratives that successfully keep traditionally oppressed groups from receiving equal opportunity. He asks us to cease effacing the stories of black achievement during Reconstruction, and to recognize the ideological components of memory. Only then can we make good on the promises that were made to blacks so long ago that they too could be part of the American dream.read more
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Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period. 139 illus. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved