Trymaine Lee: Let me read y’all somethin’. “It would be only fair to say frankly in advance, that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race. If he believes that the Negro in America is an average and ordinary human being, then he will read the story and judge it by the facts adduced.
If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation who can never successfully take part in modern civilization, and whose emancipation and enfranchisement were gestures against nature, then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down.”
W.E. Burghardt Du Bois, December 1934. In that opening note to readers from his seminal, historical corrective on the Reconstruction era called Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois is preparing readers to engage with what until then had been an era largely seen through the lens of white supremacy as a failure.
A moment of America at its most naïve, in which the victorious North and the federal government handed power and privilege to undeserving, uneducated, and ungrateful formerly enslaved Black people who simply couldn’t handle power, let alone freedom, or so-called democracy.
Du Bois writes that American history had been falsified to see Reconstruction as a failure. He writes that Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, that delivered freedom to Black people was being taught as, quote, “A disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule.”
It’s a sentiment that you might still hear today. But it’s untrue. Reconstruction was not a failure in the way a white-washed history might portray. Reconstruction was a moment when Black men and women tried to hold this country to its promises of liberty, and of justice, and of freedom.
Reconstruction was a radical shakeup of social and political life in post-Civil-War America. The South had fallen, and with it the human trafficking industry, their slave-labor camps, and their political dominance. 4 million formerly enslaved Black people were now free.
And a set of constitutional amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, abolished slavery, gave Black people birth-rite citizenship, and Black men the right to vote. In that way, we were a people born again.
No longer Africans enslaved in America. We became African Americans. Our citizenship, birthed from the blood-soaked soil of war, our generations-long piecemeal rebellion in the name of our humanity. And for a stretch of years, the hopes and dreams of these new Black Americans were within reach.
With the right to vote came the first generation of Black politicians who filled local, state, and even federal seats, positions once held by enslavers. Citizenship brought the power to build homes and farms and businesses. Black towns sprouted up all across the South on soil they’d worked for generations and could now call their own.
Institutions like schools and churches were pillars for this new Black nation of freed men and women, whose faith would carry them through the best and worst of times. But this freedom, Black freedom, was never free. There would be blood and backlash. And ultimately, an undoing. Reconstruction crumbled under the weight of radical white discontent.
Archival Recording: You freed us. You emancipated us. I thank you for it. But under what circumstances did you emancipate us? Under what circumstances have we obtained our freedom?
Lee: In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture exhibit on Reconstruction, there’s a life-size video of an actor playing Frederick Douglass, recited his speech to the Republican Convention in 1876.
Archival Recording: When you turned us loose you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind. And worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.
Lee: Douglass gave this address while still in the heart of the Reconstruction era to shine a light on the broken promises of white America after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Archival Recording: The question now is do you mean to make good to us the promises in your Constitution? Tell me if your heart be as my heart, that the liberty which you have asserted for the Black man in this country shall be maintained.
Spencer Crew: And what he says is that you had all the promises you offered up in the start of Reconstruction that have not come true. And as an exhibition, we want to think about how they remain unfulfilled even in today’s world.
Lee: I’m Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. This Black History Month, we’re bringing you a four-part series, a deep dive into Reconstruction and how its legacy continues to shape us today. We’ve traveled the deep South to better understand who we are, and perhaps where we’re going.
Into America has teamed up with the National Museum of African American History and Culture to help us tell this story using artifacts. We start with the story of Robert Smalls, a son of South Carolina born into slavery and later elected to Congress, just as African Americans were beginning to flex their political muscle. Black political power is perhaps the most visible marker of the era. And it’s something that we’re still fighting to defend today.
Jaime Harrison: You can never emulate the work of Robert Smalls. But you can sure as hell amplify it, and make sure that it is not diminished.
Lee: So what do we have here?
Crew: Here we have a timeline that gives us some of the major events connected with the Reconstruction period and afterwards. We approached the–
Lee: The Smithsonian special exhibit on Reconstruction is called Make Good the Promises, after the phrase in Frederick Douglass’s speech. I’m here in Washington, D.C. getting a tour from the co-curator of the exhibit, and the museum’s emeritus director, Spencer Crew. Please excuse the muffled sound. In the museum’s public space, we had to mask up for COVID. Is there any item in here that is, like, really special to you that stands out?
Crew: One of the things that really resonates for me is this actual document of this petition that was created in South Carolina, 1865.
Lee: Spencer gestures to a long, old scroll on loan from the Library of Congress.
Crew: It was part of a number of conventions and meetings that were put together after the Civil War where African Americans are beginning to detail their hopes and expectations, and started to call upon the government to do things better.
Lee: Signed by more than 3,000 Black men, the petitions asks the U.S. Congress for equal standing before the law, including the right to vote. It reads: “Without this political privilege, we will have no security for our personal rights and no means to secure the blessings of education to our children.” Under the exhibit glass the scroll is unfurled just enough to see these signatures from another era. This is 54′ long?
Crew: Fifty-four foot long.
Lee: My gosh.
Crew: This is the actual document here. And one of the things we’ve done is that we’ve had it photographed. And then we have the actual full document in the exhibition in the South so people can see how long it is in real life. But it’s a remarkable effort on their part to show how strongly so many people felt about the changes taking place, and they need to do it properly.
Lee: Wow. And what it mean to sign their name, making their voices heard.
Crew: Absolutely. Or to put your mark and have someone put your name next to it. Because not everyone could write, but you wanted to make sure that it was note that, “I, too, agree with this.”
Lee: And one of the men whose name is on that protection is Robert Smalls.
Crew: Well, I think Robert Smalls is a remarkable story. I mean, he begins his life as an enslaved person, but he also, I think, embodies the idea that enslaved–
Lee: Robert Smalls wasn’t just remarkable. What he did was unimaginable. To find out more about his story changed the outcome of the American story, I went from D.C. to Beaufort, a city along the coast of South Carolina. I’m driving in from Savannah, where I flew into last night, about an hour or so away from Beaufort.
And as you’re traveling through the state from Georgia to South Carolina, and I started getting to the low country. And the aesthetic is what you might assume: moss, trees, very rural. But the further we get into the low country, you start to cross rivers and really kind of swampy areas. You can almost imagine what this place could’ve been like in the 19th century.
In the story of Black Americans’ continued journey toward freedom, South Carolina plays an outsized role. It was the capital of chattel slavery in this country. 40% of the enslaved Africans that arrived in the U.S. first stepped ashore at the Port of Charleston.
Not much looks like it’s changed. Obviously you have modern buildings, and cars, and highways. But there are stretches there where it’s quiet. And in that quiet you can almost sense something from the past. On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina was the very first date to secede from the Union.
In response, federal troops took over Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor. Four months later, Confederate soldiers fired the first shots of the Civil War right there, when members of the state’s militia bombarded the fort with artillery fire for 34 hours before taking it back.
So I’m about 15 minutes away from the historic Smalls property. I’m actually literally driving on Robert Smalls Parkway, which is, you know, fitting for a native son of this place. And when the war was over, South Carolina, with a state population that was 57% Black, would act as a proving ground where the newly freed were able to exercise and realize their own self-determination. So I’m getting closer now and I’m really looking forward to visiting 511 Prince Street, birthplace of Robert Smalls. I arrive at a two-story white house with black shutters, set back from the street behind trees covered with moss.
Michael Boulware Moore: Here was this man who took his freedom, took it into his own hands, and then came back and really invested, contributed in helping to make this country a more equal and equitable place for all Americans.
Lee: Michael Boulware Moore is the great, great grandson of Robert Smalls and the Smalls family historian. Talk to us a little bit about this property. I mean, this house is amazing. The grounds are beautiful.
Moore: You know, this was the big house back in the day. You know, Robert and his mother were enslaved here. She worked here, serving the family.
Lee: And Robert Smalls was born here into slavery on this property?
Moore: Yeah. I mean, you know, somewhere back up in there. We don’t know precisely where. I think we need to do some research. But yes, somewhere along in here.
Lee: Michael grew up in Boston in the 1970s, a time when fights over busing and school desegregation submerged the city in a sea of racial tension and violence.
Moore: But I think knowing about Robert Smalls, knowing that I came from someone who had really achieved great things, who help to undergird my sense of identity helped to counter-balance a lot of what society was throwin’ at me.
Lee: Michael’s introduction to Robert Smalls came when he was just a little boy from stories that he’d hear from his grandmother.
Moore: My grandmother, Ariana, was Robert’s granddaughter. And she was born in 1897. You know, it’s interesting because in various corners of the country, Robert’s known as either “Congressman” or as “General.” But I grew up hearing about his as “Grandpa.”
Lee: And Grandpa’s story begins in 1839. On April 5th of that year, Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in a shack behind that big house at 511 Prince Street. At the time, it was owned by the McKee family. Robert’s mother was Lydia Polite, a Gullah Geechee woman who was enslaved and working as a domestic in the big house. His father was never officially identified. But speculation holds that it was Henry McKee, one of the McKee sons.
Moore: He grew up around the children and grandchildren of the master, and so got some socialization around, quote, unquote, “The King’s English” but he grew up in a much more sort of curated and protected kind of an environment behind the big house.
Lee: The story goes that Robert was favored by the McKees and wasn’t treated as harshly as the other enslaved people around him. His mother tried to toughen him up by sending him out to work in the fields, and by making him watch when others were being whipped. She wanted to make sure that his eyes were wide open to the harsh realities of being Black in antebellum America.
Moore: You know, he always was one to buck the system. He would see others, the white kids, sort of doing things he realized that he couldn’t do, primary being learning how to read and write, going to school. But also in the evenings the bell rang for curfew.
He would have to go inside. Of course, none of the white children had to do that. And so I think he bucked against that and found himself getting into trouble. And so they sent him to Charleston as a way of, you know, giving him a second, fresh start.
Lee: In Beaufort, Robert’s defiant attitude was starting to get him into trouble. But in Charleston, he was afforded a little independence. And to some extent, made his own way in this thriving metropolis, a city made rich by the slave trade.
Moore: Charleston was a little bit of a different context around slavery. There were a number of different kinds of enslaved people. There was the traditional plantation sort of model of slavery. There was sort of urban slavery, where there were people like Robert who lived and worked in the city.
But even beyond that, there was a whole community of what was called “free people of color.” So either formerly enslaved or people, Black folks who had somehow achieved their freedom that were there. And it was this mix of all of those different folks in Charleston that was really unique.
Lee: Smalls was just 12 when he arrived in Charleston. Over the next few years, he held a handful of jobs in hotels and on the city’s docks. Eventually, he found work on ships traversing the harbor, where he gained a reputation as one of the best ships’ pilots around. It gave him an intimate understanding of the area’s waterways, and he was allowed to keep $1 a week from his earnings.
Moore: And so he saved just about every penny that he ever earned from that.
Lee: Robert had reason to save. He was trying to buy freedom. But not just his own freedom. In Charleston, he met an enslaved woman named Hannah, who was working at a hotel there. In 1856, with permission from their enslavers, the two married and moved into an apartment in town. Before long, the couple had two children.
Moore: And in a very real way, he acted like any other father would do who loved his family, loved his wife, loved his children, wanted to protect his family. And he came up with a scheme.
Lee: Smalls was haunted by the idea that at another man’s whim, he or any member of his family could be sold off, never to be seen or heard from again. He tried to negotiate with his wife’s enslavers to buy his own family’s freedom. They agreed, but at a price that was higher than anything he could’ve reasonably saved. But there was another way.
Moore: He knew that there was a federal United States blockage just outside the mouth of Charleston Harbor. And he had heard that if he could get to that blockade somehow, that he’d be free.
Lee: In the fall of 1861, months after the start of the war, Robert Smalls was a assigned to steer a boat called the Planter, a heavily armed, Confederate military vessel that carried personnel and supplies between forts in the Charleston Harbor.
The Planter’s crew consisted of three Confederates and seven enslaved men. Sometimes the Confederate crew members would leave the ship in the hands of the Black crew overnight, while they went ashore to drink or visit with family. Smalls began scheming, plotting with the other Black crew members, and waiting for an opportunity to present itself.
And in the early hours of May 13th, 1862, opportunity did just that. After the white crew had left for the night, a 23-year-old Smalls donned the topcoat and wide-brimmed straw hat of the Confederate captain to hide his face. And at 2:00 in the morning, the Planter shoved off into the dark of night.
Moore: They had to sale past a number of forts, including Fort Sumter, which is at the mouth of the harbor, which was one of the biggest and most dangerous forts, you know, during the Civil War. It was the place where the Civil War began, and it was loaded with cannons that could reach, you know, several miles away. So however they might have been armed, there was nothing that one little boat could do against these major forts.
Lee: The Planter had one treacherous rendezvous to make, where it picked up the families of the other enslaved crew members onboard. But after successfully completing this leg of their mission, they set out into the harbor toward freedom. In addition to wearing the Confederate captain’s clothes, Smalls had one crucial tactic left up his sleeve.
Moore: As the story goes, he had learned the gate of the Confederate captain. And in the darkness of night, he sailed up to five forts. And at distance they saw it was unusual for a boat to be sailing at that hour. But again, in darkness and since Robert knew the passcode, and they saw this coat and the hat of the captain, and so they thought that, while unusual, all was normal. And so Robert executed the whistle and waited. And then heard, “Pass the Planter,” which was acknowledgment that they could continue.
Lee: Smalls led the ship toward the Union blockade with 17 Black passengers onboard, including three children. One of them was Michael’s great grandmother, Elizabeth.
Moore: They still had to sail along the path that Confederate boats would. But then once they believed they were beyond the reach of the Confederate cannons, they quickly veered South toward the United States blockade.
Lee: But after planning for months, Smalls had forgotten one critical detail.
Moore: As they approached, here is one of the largest boats in the Charleston Harbor, at the time sailing an enormous Confederate flag, approaching swiftly this U.S. Union blockade. Robert had forgotten this last detail, that he had been managing all these different details of this very, very dangerous exploit.
But he had forgotten about the Confederate flag. But Hannah, his wife, my great, great grandmother, had remembered this and had sewn together a couple of white bed sheets. And so they very quickly lowered the Confederate flag and raised the white sheet of surrender, and approached the USS Onward. And as they stepped off the Planter and onto the Onward, they were free.
Lee: Arriving at this blockade of Union ships was nothing short of a miracle. Smalls had embarked on a dangerous mission, one that could’ve easily gotten all 17 passengers captured, and likely killed by the Confederacy.
Moore: And that’s why they actually lined the bottom of the boat was dynamite. Because they knew that if they were caught, there were so many things that could go wrong. And if they were caught, that not only would they be killed, but they’d be executed in a particularly violent and public way as an example for others who might have similar kinds of ideas. So they committed all. You know, it was freedom or it was death that night.
Lee: Wow. And how was Robert Smalls, and the boat, and the crew, and everyone received by the Union?
Moore: Well, at first with quite a bit of shock.
Lee: I can imagine.
Moore: Here is this huge Confederate ship approaching with these enslaved crew and their families. Nothing like that had ever happened up to that point. And let’s also remember, as crazy as it sounds, the conception that many had of enslaved people, of Black folks, was that they were something akin to beasts of burden.
That they were incapable of higher-level thinking, something like your horse, or your donkey, or something like that. And so for Robert to have, in a very tangible way, outsmarted the Confederacy that morning, I think it shocked a lot of people.
Lee: Smalls became a wanted man in the South. The Confederacy placed a $4,000 bounty on his head. On May 30th, 1862, the United States Congress authorized the Navy to appraise the Planter and reward Smalls and his crew half the proceeds for rescuing her from the enemies of the government. Smalls received $1,500, a large sum for the time. But still less than a government report later said he was owed.
Moore: Congress really couldn’t see fit to give a Black man that much money. But they gave him something.
Lee: They’re like, “Let’s not get carried away now, it was amazing.”
Moore: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But he could’ve lived a very comfortable life in the North as a Civil War hero, but he wanted to come back. He wanted to fight for the freedom of others.
Lee: Smalls joined the Union Navy and became the first Black captain of a U.S. Navy vessel. He commanded the Planter, the same ship he used to free himself. Smalls was involved in a number of skirmishes through that war. But perhaps his greatest contribution was convincing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow Black men to fight on the side of the Union, a decision that brought nearly 200,000 additional soldiers and seamen into the Union’s ranks.
Moore: It’s an enormous deal. I mean, without the influx of those men, who knows, you know? The United States was getting on in the war. Who knows? Who knows what history and what this country would be like today without that?
Lee: On April 9th, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate force at Appomattox Virginia, ending the Civil War. Robert Smalls and his family returned to Beaufort. During the war, the McKee family, who had enslaved Robert Smalls and his mother, fell behind on the taxes. And that house at 511 Prince Street, the property where Smalls was born, went up for sale. In an extraordinary turn of events, Smalls was able to buy the house with the money Congress awarded him for delivering the Planter.
Moore: I love the poetry in that, you know, of having, you know, been owned, having been a piece of property here, and then coming back and buying it and own it. I can only imagine just the feeling that they had when they came back. And instead of working here and this being a place of oppression and exploitation, that this was an asset. This was something that they owned. Yeah, it must’ve been just phenomenal.
Lee: And in a display of grace, he even allowed Mrs. McKee to stay on the property as she grew older and became sick. After the war, federal troops were stationed through that South to enforce new laws and protect the rights of the newly emancipated.
Just months after the war ended in 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified. It officially abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The 14th Amendment, answering the question of citizenship for the formerly enslaved, and providing for equal protection under the law, was interested in 1866 and ratified in 1868.
Then on February 3rd, 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed, making it illegal for the government to deny the right to vote to any man based on race or their previous condition of servitude. Together, these are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, and ushered in a new era for the 4 million newly freed Black Americans. This marked the birth of a new Black nation, and a new path for Robert Smalls.
Moore: Well, he went back to Beaufort and he got involved in politics.
Lee: Smalls helped organize the Republican Party of South Carolina, and went on to serve in the state legislature. At the time, the story of his daring escape from slavery had made him one of the most famous men in the country. Robert’s great, great grandson, Michael Moore, says that he leveraged that fame to create change. And one of the issues that he cared most about was education.
Moore: It really vexed him that he was prevented from being able to learn to read and write as an enslaved person. So the first thing he did was he actually joined the school board, which is a place that many people begin their political careers.
But he very quickly advanced and was elected to the South Carolina House, and then to the South Carolina Senate. And while there, he wrote legislation to create in South Carolina the first free statewide compulsory public school system, which was really the first in the nation. And so Robert Smalls, you could say, is the father of public schooling in the United States.
Lee: Smalls soon set his sights on federal office. In 1874, he was elected to Congress. And would go on to serve an incredible five terms in the House until 1886. The district Robert Smalls represented was majority Black, and it became known for having an abundance of opportunities for enterprising and ambitious Black politicians. People called it “a Black paradise”
Moore: I just think Robert believed that he could be a vessel, a vehicle, a tool to help African Americans experience as much life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as anyone.
Lee: Michael has four sons. And even though preserving these memories gets harder with each passing generation, Michael wants to make sure his children carry on the legacy of their great, great, great grandfather. And that legacy isn’t just about Robert Smalls’s accomplishments. It’s also about his character.
Moore: When faced with something, I ask myself, I say, “Well, how would Robert Smalls respond in this kind of a situation?” Or, “What would he do?” Or maybe even more profoundly, if I’ve got even just a drop of the same blood that Robert Smalls had, then I’ve gotta go for it.
Lee: When we come back, more on the rise of this new Black nation. The forces that conspired against it, and how the legacy of this giant, Robert Smalls, continues to shape us today.
Harrison: I try to make sure that that type of excellence is the way that I go about my work. It is the way I go about my life. And that I impart that to my sons and to the people that I can influence along the way.
Lee: And we head back to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Crew: Well, there’s still, I think, a variety of different pieces of writings that illustrate the acquisition of land, how people are trying to record that.
Lee: This is a pretty expansive exhibition here.
Crew: It is. We’re trying to really touch on a lot of the different concepts that are enforced.
Lee: Back at the museum, I’m surrounded by portraits and artifacts that tell the story of Black political power during Reconstruction. When he took his seat in the House of Representatives in 1875, Robert Smalls wasn’t the only Black Congressman. He was joined that term by a senator and six other representatives from the former slave states, including the first Black man to serve in the House, Joseph Rainey, also of South Carolina.
Crew: It’s really lovely, you’re absolutely right. And it comes from the House of Representatives.
Lee: I asked Spencer Crew, the curator, about a beautiful old desk and chair right in the middle of the exhibit.
Crew: It’s a really wonderful piece of workmanship in terms of its ornateness.
Lee: It’s a wooden chair with a deep red leather backing used in Congress from 1857-1873. There’s a wide desk with a green felt top. You can imagine stacks of papers and books to one side, maybe some room for drafting on the other.
Crew: And we selected it because it really talks about the representation of African Americans in Congress. You really have wonderful scrolling and detail work from the carpenter. I think in some ways, to allow people to feel elevated in this position.
Lee: The first Black Congressman during Reconstruction would’ve sat at desks just like these, alongside their white counterparts.
Crew: And it speaks to the possibilities that Reconstruction offers to people. A chance to go from being enslaved to actually being a member of Congress and writing laws that change the nature of the nation.
Lee: These Black Congressmen attract the most attention throughout history. But Spencer tells me the political power shift went far beyond the federal government.
Crew: Keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of African Americans going to Congress and getting positions. During Reconstruction, you have more than 1,500 African Americans across the South who have a variety of different kind of positions that they’re able to hold.
Lee: That’s a big number.
Crew: It’s a big number. It’s often a number that’s overlooked because we look so much to people who go to Congress. And they’re important as well. But it’s just as important to have a local sheriff, to have a local judge, to have other local politicians who are in your area who can then help pass local laws that also support what you’re doing, and also at the state level.
At the state level’s where you have laws passed which I think provide for education, universal education in ways that hadn’t existed before. And for other kind of improvements that hadn’t been a part of the South’s way of operating prior to that.
And a lot of this has to do with the election of African Americans into these positions, who are then doing the things, voting for the things, and pushing for the things that are important for their community, are important for their children, important for their future. And no one can represent that better than someone who’s been through that experience, and can then know what’s needed to make the next steps forward.
Lee: Reconstruction is often painted as a failure. But that overshadows the astounding achievements Black Americans realized in these really short years. Spencer mentions public education. And there were also movements to set up whole Black towns and reunite families that had been separated. But almost immediately there was also a backlash from white supremacists.
Crew: So what arises during this period are organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a lot of violence that emerges during this time period. Lots of African Americans who were killed for having the audacity to speak up, for having the audacity to vote. One of the things that African Americans did in terms of voting was that they decided to come together and to march to the voting poll together, armed, so they could go ahead and vote and to have the impact that they want to.
Lee: Black votes were under such threat, and their right to vote was under such threat that they actually marched to the polls armed with guns?
Crew: Absolutely. Absolutely, as a way of protecting themselves. A wonderful story I remember reading is a group getting together to talk about going to the polls and voting on whether or not they were going to go vote at all. And the women said, “You’re gonna go and vote. You don’t have an option. If you don’t go and vote, we’re gonna get you.”
And so there’s a real understanding that the vote is the one pathway you can follow that can maybe make a difference. And that you have to really just go ahead and have the courage to go ahead and do that despite the kinds of threats that existed around that decision.
Lee: Would there have been districts where white people would’ve been under the political leadership of a Robert Smalls? Like, these white former enslavers would’ve been under the charge of these–
Crew: So, yes, I think there are places where that’s the case. And probably one of the reasons why you have white supremists who are not happy. Because they don’t want to have to go before a Black judge. They don’t want to have to go before a Black sheriff. They find that demeaning and a flipping of the way the society should be.
Lee: So one decade we can rape, murder, traffic in human beings, and these human beings are now our political ears. They’re our sheriff. Our judge.
Lee: That must’ve been like a world flipped upside down for some of these white folks.
Crew: Yes, that’s a world turned upside down, sort of mind-blowing moment.
Lee: So there’s all this progress happening under Reconstruction. It sounds like the political world was shifting, the racial world was shifting. Everything in America was, like, kinda teetering here, but a great moment of hope. How long did it last?
Crew: (SIGH) How long did it last? I think that almost from the very start of Reconstruction, counterattacks were under way. One could argue that Reconstruction sort of has its most obvious decline around 1876 with that election.
Lee: The presidential election of 1876 between liberal Rutherford B. Hayes and conservative Samuel Tilden was wildly contested. So behind the scenes, the parties struck a deal. Hayes could have the presidency if he agreed to remove federal troops from the South.
Crew: And this takes away an important layer of protection for African Americans. And it allows the Southerners who were opposed to change to come more into office, to be more violent, to do other things to recreate the kind of world that they want.
One of the great illustrations of it, Southern state constitutions that are put in place after that time. Maybe the one that’s most notable is one the one in Mississippi in 1890, where they put into place this idea of the grandfather clause, which says that if your grandfather didn’t vote in a state in 1860, you can’t vote in our state now in 1890.
And you have a problem that the Supreme Court during this period is not interpreting the 15th Amendment and the 14th Amendment in ways that are most beneficial to African Americans. Saying that, for example, the 14th Amendment doesn’t guarantee a person’s civil rights. And saying that the 15th Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to vote. As long as you don’t say that it’s because of your race, or color, or previous standing in servitude, you can change who can vote and who cannot vote.
Lee: And in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal. That the doctrine of separate but equal was allowed within the bounds of the Constitution. And while most historians define Reconstruction as the dozen years between 1865 and 1877, Spencer and the team at the National Museum of African American History and Culture use this moment, Plessy versus Ferguson, to mark the end of any federal attempt to make good the promises of Reconstruction.
Archival Recording: Do you mean to make good to us the promises in your Constitution?
Lee: For decades, Jim Crow was the law of the land, suppressing political and economic power of Black Southerners as the South attempted to push Black people as far back into slavery as they could. But Black people fought to exercise their political will, despite poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence.
Archival Recording: Get off the side.
Archival Recording: We feel that the very procedure itself is illegal and designed to restore (UNINTEL).
Archival Recording: The board of registrars is not in session this afternoon, as you were informed. You came down to make a mockery out of this courthouse and we’re not going to have it.
Lee: Then in the midst of the Civil rights movement, the Supreme Court struck down separate but equal in Brown v. Board. And Black Americans pressured the federal government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a full century after the end of the Civil War.
Archival Recording: It is wrong, deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.
Lee: In the years since Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, we’ve seen some progress.
Archival Recording: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. (APPLAUSE) (CHANTING)
Lee: And we’ve witnessed some victories.
Barack Obama: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
Lee: But there have also been major setbacks.
Archival Recording: I need to interrupt you because we have a ruling from the Supreme Court on voting rights. Obviously, generally considered one of the most important, effective civil rights laws in American history. The case challenges to very–
Lee: Like here in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted key sections of the Voting Rights Act.
Archival Recording: And today the court left that key part of the law all but dead.
Lee: The ruling removed federal election oversight from the very southern states that had done everything in their power to restrict the Black vote from Reconstruction onward. Without oversight, Republican lawmakers across the country passed a wave of legislation that restricts voting, like voter ID laws, limiting early voting, and shuttering polling places in predominantly Black districts.
Archival Recording: Tonight, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signing the latest controversial state voting law that he says will make elections more secure.
Ron Desantis: We’re going to make sure our elections are transparent. We’re also going to continue with voter ID, which is very, very important to make sure that you are who you say you are.
Lee: President Joe Biden and the Democrats say the new federal voting protections are a top priority, despite the fierce opposition that’s holding up those laws in Congress. I had to speak with someone about where Reconstruction’s legacy leaves us today, so I called up the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison.
Harrison: Hey, Trymaine, how are you, man?
Lee: Now, you know, you’re a true friend of the podcast. This is number three. So you’ve (LAUGH) been on more than any other guest in our life. At some point you’ll get a jacket or a little pin or somethin’, “Into America” across the chest.
Harrison: I love it.
Lee: As chair of the DNC, Harrison is always listening closely for the echoes of Reconstruction-era backlash. Especially throughout the South.
Harrison: The fear of Black power, Black electoral power, let me say that, are some of the things that we’re still seeing today.
Lee: One of the most effective ways in recent years that Republicans have limited Black folks’ political power is through gerrymandering, creating voting districts that either dilute Black voting power in overwhelmingly white districts, or over-pack Black residents into fewer Blacker districts. Jaime Harrison’s state of South Carolina is one of the most extreme examples of this. The most recent district map solidified the GOP majority in the state.
Harrison: Well, South Carolina is similar to Alabama. Our sister states of Alabama and Mississippi still have significant African American populations. I think we’re at about 27%, 28% here. And so there could be, you know, based on the Voting Rights Act, more than one majority/minority district in this state. But Republicans have gerrymandered us to hell so that there’s only one. And that’s Jim Clyburn.
Lee: Is it a stretch to connect these current activities and actions that are suppressing voter participation directly back to the efforts after Reconstruction?
Harrison: Well, I mean, it’s a legacy, right? It is a continuance. And this is why it’s so important to understand our history. This is why, you know, when you’re debating voting rights on the floor of the United States Senate and you hear some of the same arguments, you know, “Well, this is a federalization of our election process,” these are almost the exact same arguments they had in 1965 as they debated the Voting Rights Act. Almost carbon copy.
Lee: You know, it sounds like if we’re, you know, diving deep into this history lesson, that there was a moment when folks did see the power of the Black franchise and Black enfranchisement. And everything after that has been a response to actually witnessing that power. We think about a guy like Robert Smalls, right, and some of these heroic, first generation of Black politicians. It sounds like America was a little shook after witnessing that.
Harrison: Oh, my. Let me tell you folks. If you wanna hear about an American hero, if you wanna here about a Black man who put on a red cape and had an S on his chest, it was Robert Smalls. From the Robert Smalls we got the Modjeska Simkins and the Septima Clarks, and the Jesse Jacksons, and now the Jim Clyburns. And I hope that my work that I do continues in that vein of demonstrating to folks that we are equal folks in all forms and in all fashion.
Lee: In the decades following the Civil War, two dozen Black men served in Congress, 22 representatives and two senators. Then, from 1901 to 1929, there was not a single Black member of Congress. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Black representation at the federal level grew steadily to the present day.
We’ve had two senators go on to become the nation’s first Black president and first Black vice president. Today, there are three Black senators and 59 Black members of the House of Representatives. That’s the most Black congresspeople serving at one time in history. And there’s still a long way to go.
Harrison: You know, we’re now picking the fruit off of the tree, but the seed was planted a long time ago, right? And the seed was planted with people like Robert Smalls, that really did see violence, violent, suppressive activities at the precincts, threatening of the lives of Black folks to make sure that they didn’t vote.
Are we seeing that today? No, we’re not seeing those type of violent activities and the suppressive activities today. But we are seeing nefarious ways in order to try to keep people away from the polls. And the thing is, it’s important to nip that in the bud right now, so that we don’t revert back to another time in which we see violence at the precincts and violence at the polls. So we as a collective need to learn our history and make sure that we’re doing everything that we can so that we don’t repeat it.
Lee: In 1886, Smalls lost his final congressional race. He returned to South Carolina, and in 1890 he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as a U.S. customs collector for the Port of Beaufort. And in 1895, South Carolina delivered a death blow to Reconstruction when it revised the state’s constitution, adopting voting restrictions that disenfranchised the state’s Black population. Robert Smalls was delegate to that year’s constitutional convention. But he wasn’t able to stop that body from gutting Black freedoms.
Moore: So Robert, I think he held on as long as anyone in the country. But ultimately succumbed to those efforts.
Lee: Even into Jim Crow, which Robert Smalls was still around and fighting there. And I wanted to read this one quote that he said during the Jim Crow Era. He said, “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” What do you think he meant by that? I mean, he lays it out there, but when you hear those words, what do they mean to you personally? But also, how do you think it reflects on, as a people, how we’ve continued to push, and push, and push?
Moore: To me, that means that Black folks have received the brunt of all kinds of social, political, economic exploitation, oppression, and we’re still here. We’re still surviving. We’re still achieving. We’re still living our lives. All we just need is a shot.
Lee: On February 23rd, 1915 Robert Smalls died on the same property where he’d been born into slavery. The same property that he purchased as a free man. He lies in rest just a few blocks away, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. So in the courtyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church here in Beaufort, where Robert Smalls is buried.
Really the kind of church you would see in so many communities, especially here in the South. This white clapboard, the old stained glass windows weathered by time. And imagining over the years the generations who would’ve come to this church to seek healing, to find hope, to organize politically.
But also just to enjoy a measure of faith and community. And this is where Robert Smalls is buried. It’s blocks from where he was born into enslavement at 511 Prince Street. And here he is resting. When you start to look at this time period in American history, it’s hard not to only see what could’ve been.
Robert Smalls becoming senator, a continued Black majority electorate that could’ve legislated in the best interests of the Black population of South Carolina for another hundred years. The possibilities go on and on. But let’s remember what was accomplished.
The first statewide free public education, the first election where Black men could hold a ballot in their hands and to have a voice. A sustained moment where newly freed people could hope, and dream, and start to build their communities on their terms. But of course, in order to do that they would first need their own land.
Archival Recording: It’s the pride, you know? They were looking forward to having a place of their own. You had the freedom now to own your own place, to raise your family, and not be beholden to anyone else. Just that longing to be able to have your own. And that’s what was instilled from the generations on down.
Lee: In part two of Reconstructed, we travel to Promised Land, South Carolina to learn how the newly freed, reunited with lost family, acquired land and built communities. And we visit a group of young Black families with their own freedom dreams, who are building a new town in Georgia.
Archival Recording: Like, I felt like our ancestors called us to this land. And when we got on the land, it was like we both got chills. And we held hands and we screamed, like, “This is it.” Like, we had a sense of ownership. Soon as we stepped on the ground, it was like it was ours.
Lee: Next week, In Search of the Promised Land. In the meantime, remember to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod. That’s @IntoAmericaPod. And you can tweet me @TrymaineLee, or write to us at [email protected] That was [email protected], and the letters U-N-I.com.
And remember, Into America has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award. We’re finalists in the outstanding news and information podcast category. Voting closes at the end of the week, so head to our social sites to find out how you can support the show.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. This episode was also produced by Stefanie Cargill.
Recording help from Kevin Bond, Tom Craca, Jim Long, Jeff Pope, Tom Stanton (PH), and Andy Scritchfield. Special thanks to Spencer Crew, Fleur Paysour, Melissa Wood, and the entire team at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m Trymaine Lee. We’ll see you next Thursday or Reconstructed Part Two: In Search of the Promised Land.
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