Two historians recently wrote an Op-Ed at the Washington Post recommending that the federal government fund a Reconstruction Memorial in Beaufort, South Carolina. Every reason cited involved the black experience. There was no mention of non-blacks except to remark that “20th century…white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake.” Regrettably the remark seems to falsely imply that anyone identifying non-racial faults with Reconstruction is a white supremacist. In truth, however, the consequences of Reconstruction were far more multiracial and lasted much longer than the currently popular race-centric narrative suggests.
The elephant in the room is Southern poverty. A century after the end of the Civil War eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 report on Southern economic conditions disclosed that whites comprised half of the region’s sharecroppers and two-thirds of its almost equally destitute tenant farmers. Roosevelt’s report stated univocally that white sharecroppers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.”
Sharecropper incomes ranged from $38 to $87 annually in 1938 thereby equating to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. By comparison during the depression that followed the 1873 Financial Panic sixty-five years earlier, the Ohio Department of Labor Statistics estimated the poverty line at one dollar a day.
Shortly after the Great Depression of the 1930s began, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan—honored presently by the MIT Sloan School of Management—voluntarily cut his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by Mississippi’s two million residents that year. Widespread Southern poverty also led to lower life expectancies. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, for example, South Carolina was in 1930 the only state with as much as half of its population under the age of twenty.
The Post editorialists ignore the national agendas that contributed toward protracted Southern poverty. Examples include high protective tariffs that averaged 45% for fifty years after the war, generous Union Veterans pensions that did not even stop growing until 1921 and approximated 40% of the federal budget in 1893, discriminatory railroad freight rates, discriminatory banking regulations, absentee ownership of Southern resources, lax monopoly regulation, and the requirement (after termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1870) that the nearly indigent Southern states alone bear the financial burden to educate the children of former slaves even though emancipation was a national policy.
Another common flaw of modern Reconstruction historians is their failure to adequately examine how developments in one part of the country affected other parts. The Post Op-Ed makes no mention of such intersectional factors. There is instead a tendency to portray the “white supremacist” South as an evil twin to the rest of the country and largely responsible for today’s lingering racial problems. At the least, however, a valid picture of Reconstruction requires knowledge of how the Gilded Age in the North impacted the South. The experience of Amos Akerman is an example.
Five years after Akerman served as a Confederate quartermaster during the Civil War, President Ulysses Grant appointed him attorney general. He was the most vigorous of Grant’s five attorneys general in pursuit of Southern racial justice. After only a year in office, however, Grant abruptly asked him to resign after Akerman had taken actions contrary to the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad and railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould. Akerman’s replacement would later resign amid bribery accusations.
In short, the interpretations of many modern Reconstruction historians focus too much on racial injustices and not enough on the political and economic factors affecting all races of Southerners. At best, such historians are substituting one mythology for another. Their narratives are driven by the zeitgeist of our era and ignore the wisdom expressed by Carlos Eire who was a child refugee from Castro’s Cuba and won the National Book Award for his memoir of his escape and re-settlement in America: “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”