A major part of history is explained by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The lessons of the Reconstruction era remain relevant today, in the view of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The historian and Harvard professor – and PBS staple (“Finding Your Roots”) – returns to the network as host and an executive producer of the new documentary “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” offering the first two of its four hours Tuesday, April 9 (check local listings). Concluding the following Tuesday, the program covers the years from 1865 to 1915, when a nation torn apart by conflict had to rebuild itself by moving through segregation and rebellion.
“I hardly learned anything about Reconstruction when I was in school,” Gates reflects. “In my class, they skipped from Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to Rosa Parks, Dr. King and the civil rights movement — leaving lots of students, even me, wondering, ‘If Lincoln freed the slaves, why did we need the civil rights movement?’ ”
While Gates says he was inspired to show “the achievements of black people (after) 90 percent of black people on the eve of the Civil War were enslaved,” he also wants the documentary to be “a parable about the possibilities of achieving the rights inscribed in the Constitution and implicit in the Declaration, but also about how fragile our rights are.”
“Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” draws largely from work by Eric Foner, an expert on the subject (and a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University) who has written multiple books on it.
“What is inspiring in this story,” Foner says, “is the very struggle of people coming out of slavery, plus the numerous allies they had in the North — abolitionists, radical Republicans and, indeed, some white people in the South — to make this an interracial democracy for the first time, to establish schools and churches.
“And not everything was wiped away,” adds Foner. “The political rights were, but the churches survived to be the springboard for future struggle. The families that were reconstituted after the end of slavery survived, of course. The black community, which was really created in a modern way in Reconstruction, survives.”