The analogy between our current moment and the historical period of Reconstruction tempts me, even as my colleagues in history appropriately remind me that such analogies are always limited, if not tortured. Still, these first 100 days of the Biden administration seem suffused with similarities to that historical period. Both feature intentional calls for unity, ambitious proposals for social and economic reform, deepened attention to racial inequality, and a national mood of extended crisis.
I am thinking more of what happened after Reconstruction. Jim Crow teaches us that the goals of Reconstruction were not met in an enduring way, even though the formal period of Reconstruction lasted twelve years. We clearly ask too much if we expect a single Biden administration to cure the problems that began unfolding long before the Trump administration even began.
I do not argue here from any debilitating pessimism about the possibility of lasting social change, on racism or any other front. Nor do I insist simply that backlash is inevitable toward any progressive cause, although we know that backlash does happen. After the Stonewall Riots of 1969 gave rise to a new wave of organized gay activism, Texas redefined its sodomy law in 1973 to include only same-sex acts (it had tried and failed to do so during its 1971 legislative session). Similarly, the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act came about in large part because the Supreme Court of Hawaii had ruled in 1993 that the state must show a compelling interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage.
What matters now is remembering how that backlash happens. The aftermath of Reconstruction reminds us that its successes were systematically eroded.
At a national scale, Reconstruction defined the formal route for Confederate states to rejoin the Union. At the local scale, the daily work of Reconstruction depended on a combination of continued Union military stewardship and social projects supported through a network of Freedmen’s Bureaus. Although these local Bureaus were structurally underfunded and understaffed, they did provide some support for newly freed Black citizens and poor Southern whites as they adjusted to the changed economic, social, and political landscape.
As the Texas Freedom Colonies Project documents however, Black communities often succeeded despite and not because of the uneven support available from Freedmen’s Bureaus. For example, when Texas was re-admitted to the Union on March 30, 1870, Freedmantown in Houston was already a primarily Black neighborhood on the western border of the city. Some of that land was not ideal compared to other places within the city limits. In particular, the Hardcastle and Burton Home Additions were situated south of the flood prone Buffalo Bayou, east of a hospital used to treat infectious diseases, west of the City stables and an incinerator complex, and north of a large City cemetery. Nonetheless, the area became a stronghold of Black land ownership. As Louise Passey documents, other adjacent additions also became majority Black owned: W. R. Baker, Castanie, and Seneschal among them. The main thoroughfare through these neighborhoods – then called San Felipe, but now named West Dallas – hosted a business district served by a streetcar line connecting it to the rest of the city. In short, Houston’s Freedmantown could be seen as a Reconstruction success, poised to become a location for Black wealth preservation and generation.
After Reconstruction, however, the economic strength of Freedmantown eroded, resembling a death by a thousand cuts. Beginning in the 1880s, Harris County real estate records for the Hardcastle Addition show a striking number of deeds granted to white buyers as properties were auctioned for prior Black owners’ failure to pay property taxes. In 1908, a City ordinance established a red-light district – the Reservation – that forced sex workers to relocate to the Hardcastle and Burton Home additions. In 1911, the City expanded the borders of the Reservation. By 1916, the City of Houston had come to own the majority of the Hardcastle and Burton Home Additions. In the 1920s, engineers moved the channel of Buffalo Bayou further south. In 1944, the City finished building the San Felipe Courts Apartments – a white-only public housing facility – on the site of the Hardcastle and Burton Home additions. From 1945 through 1967, construction of I-45 and the Pierce Elevated divided what remained of Freedmantown in two. While some parts of Freedmantown were recognized in 1986 in the National Historic Registry, the borders of that historic district do not reflect the fullest extent of the area as it was during Reconstruction.
These thousand cuts came from many directions: tax laws, city ordinances, Jim Crow, redlining, and infrastructure projects among them. Rob Nixon calls this process “slow violence.” None of the tools of Reconstruction were built to forestall this slow violence, or more punctuated violence like the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa. The aftermath of Reconstruction teaches us that the federal plan, however benign, was not a sufficient answer to the social, economic, and political problems Reconstruction sought to resolve.
We ask the wrong tool to do too much if we expect the Biden administration to work a lasting cure for the divides made undeniable over these last years. I believe each of us has a part in the work toward a cure that could prevent a thousand future cuts. For the next four years at least, it seems the White House holds a willing partner for that work.