Revisiting America’s Most Radical Experiment

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Written By Pinang Driod

This is an edition of Time-Travel Thursdays, a journey through The Atlantic’s archives to contextualize the present and surface delightful treasures. Sign up here.

It’s Black History Month again. And this February is our quadrennial Super Black History Month, where we get a whole extra leap day to squeeze in some bonus Black history. That’s roughly 4 percent more Black history than usual, more than enough time for one sitting of the 1998 NBC miniseries The Temptations. Or, if you’ve seen enough of Otis, perhaps you might spend the time reading some of The Atlantic’s archive.

Over the past few years, we at The Atlantic have been working to consider and recontextualize the magazine’s coverage of Black folks—both the places where the magazine got it right and where it didn’t. Frankly, the record has often been mixed, and the archive is thinner in many places than might be expected. But one notable moment in Black history that captured The Atlantic’s imagination was the Reconstruction era, the post–Civil War period in which Black freedpeople and their allies sought to create a truly free country.

The Atlantic was founded as an abolitionist magazine, and some of our earliest works by Black authors concerned the monumental task of Reconstruction. In these pages, the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass called for a total restructuring of society and demanded the ballot for Black men. In 1864, Charlotte Forten Grimké chronicled her work on St. Helena Island, in South Carolina, assisting freedpeople and criticizing “those who, North as well as South, taunt the colored race with inferiority while they themselves use every means in their power to crush and degrade them.”

For our December 2023 issue, “To Reconstruct the Nation,” we wanted to honor works such as these and also interpret the meaning of the Reconstruction era today, when many of the country’s biggest legal and political battles are centered on the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868 as the central Reconstruction amendment. We also wanted to examine the instances when The Atlantic fell short, including a series of 1901 articles in which prominent historians such as Woodrow Wilson lamented Reconstruction as a mistake. Ultimately, this magazine issue considered the Reconstruction era not as a distant, bygone time but as living history. The fullness of that living history offers a radical sense of possibility anchored by the dreams of Black freedpeople themselves. We could use a little of that sense of possibility today.

Your Reading List

This Ghost of Slavery

By Anna Deavere Smith

A play of past and present

Why Is America Afraid of Black History?

By Lonnie G. Bunch III

No one should fear a history that asks a country to live up to its highest ideals.

Freedmen’s Town

By Dara T. Mathis

How one photographer documented the disappearing landscape of Houston’s Fourth Ward

The Confederate General Whom All the Other Confederates Hated

By Eric Foner

James Longstreet became a champion of Reconstruction. Why?

How Reconstruction Created American Public Education

By Adam Harris

Freedpeople and their advocates persuaded the nation to embrace schooling for all.

Vann R. Newkirk II is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the host of the podcasts Floodlines and Holy Week.


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