What does the period of Reconstruction mean in African American history?

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is some debate among historians on this topic.  They do not necessarily agree on the overall meaning and impact of Reconstruction on African Americans.

It is clear that Reconstruction did not do what many hoped that it would do for black Americans.  It was hoped that Reconstruction would permanently help the freed slaves to achieve political and economic equality with whites.  This, clearly, did not happen.  African Americans who had been slaves were not given the hoped-for “40 acres and a mule” that might have helped them to become economically self-sufficient.  Instead, many of them became sharecroppers and were dominated by whites.  African Americans got the right to vote and to hold office, but they did not retain these rights for very long.  In these ways, Reconstruction can be seen as a failure for blacks.

On the other hand, there are those who say that Reconstruction at least set the stage for future successes.  From this point of view, Reconstruction created a foundation (for example, the 14th and 15th Amendments) that could later be used to help African Americans achieve greater equality.

Thus, Reconstruction can be seen as either a complete failure or a failure that retracted progress then set the stage for much later successes for African Americans.