In a special Black history series, Into America is exploring the legacy of Reconstruction. First, the rise of Black political power, told through the amazing story of Robert Smalls, who escaped slavery and became a war hero and congressman.
One question has plagued our nation since its founding: will Black people in America ever experience full citizenship?
In searching for an answer, Into America is collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for a series on the legacy of Reconstruction. We tour the museum’s Make Good the Promises exhibit with co-curator Spencer Crew, who helps use artifacts to bring the history of the era to life. Over four episodes, ‘Reconstructed’ will explore how after the Civil War, Black Americans gained citizenship and political power, planted roots and formed communities on newly acquired land, and how the newly freed drew on their faith to carry them through violent white backlash.
The story begins in the late 1860s, as the newly freed became citizens under the law and Black men gained the right to vote.Black Americans across the South suddenly had the power to exert control over their own lives. In the face of horrific violence from their white neighbors, Black people voted in liberal governments across the South, elevating hundreds of their own to places of political power.
Perhaps no one exemplifies this more than the lateCongressman Robert Smalls. As his great-great-grandson Michael Boulware Moore tells Trymaine Lee, Smalls’ daring escape from slavery and wartime actions made him a hero. Then, like hundreds of newly freed Black Americans, he decided to get involved in politics in his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina.
Smalls helped found the state’sRepublican Party in 1868 and served in the state legislature, where he crafted laws to create the first free compulsory public school system in the country. In 1874, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he remained for five terms.
Not long after Smalls left office, much of the progress of Reconstruction had been undone by a combination of white violence, Northern apathy, and severe voting restrictions aimed at Black Americans.
And more than a century later, we still see the impact of this brief time of Black political power, through people like the current Democratic National Committee chair and South Carolina native Jaime Harrison, who tells Trymaine how today’s 20th-Century fight for voting rights is a continuation of the Reconstruction era.
For a transcript, please visit https://www.msnbc.com/intoamerica.
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