The Black Radical Tradition Can Help Us Imagine a More Just World + What Everyone Should Know About Reconstruction 150 Years After the 15th Amendment’s Ratification

Excerpt, June 28, 2020 – Truthout (see below that for article on history and links regarding the Reconstruction)

The educational theory of the enslaved cannot be detached from the origins of the Black radical tradition, one that was forged in resistance, providing the empirical basis for freedom struggle. As Cedric Robinson suggests, the Black radical tradition was birthed from the spirit of revolt against the inherent conditions of the unfree. This tradition called for a new epistemological approach to the endeavor of freedom, one that “granted supremacy to the metaphysics not the material.”Frederick Douglass recognized that the child who had access to liberatory knowledge could conjure a world beyond the servitude they were born into.

The notion that the body is merely a vessel to transmit ideas across time between generations disrupts the egoistic pursuits of U.S. society and its desperate cling to individualism. It disrupts the dominant conceptions of educational institutions that seek to predict, with extreme hubris, the intellectual capacity of each student at any given point in time. It disrupts the emphasis on protecting the individual body from the ravages of COVID-19, because if bodies are merely vessels of transmission, then as conduits of what Robin D.G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams,” they are only worth protecting if they are serving this purpose.

This is not an argument for some indiscriminate, reckless spreading of COVID-19; rather, the suggestion is that an education worth dying for is one that prioritizes the intergenerational dissemination of freedom learning — the idea of freedom supersedes the protection of the body. This theory of education is what allowed the enslaved to steal away from the plantation to learn to read by the firelight at the threat of death. It is the theory that led Black students at Cornell University to continue to occupy Willard Straight Hall in 1969, demanding an Africana Studies Center, after being physically assaulted by a vigilante white fraternity. It is what led parents in the Bronzeville section of Chicago in 2015 to engage in a 34-day hunger strike over the closure of Dyett High School (among nearly 50 other school closures), their neighborhood school. Across time, Black communities have actualized this radical tradition in a direct effort to attain some version of freedom, whether it be a literacy practice, an ethnic studies institution or simply a school to call their own.

Don’t be fooled. The paradigm that governs the current social order is not lost on the notion of prioritizing ideas over protecting bodies. The idea of spreading a capitalistic version of democracy around the globe has come at the expense of the U.S. lives who are recruited to take the lives of others in economically exploited nations. The idea of profit has continuously been prioritized over preventative health care, living wages or access to healthy food. The idea of security and property has been held supreme over Black bodies. A Black radical theory of education recognizes that in each of these prioritizations, those who are constructed as Black are deemed expendable, and/or the fungible commodity to be profited from. As such, corporate democracy, profit and property rights are seen as antithetical to freedom.

Education for Liberation

Returning to the current unrest as a critical juncture in a human-centered world, it is increasingly evident that the status quo of racialized violence cannot proceed. COVID-19 has been inserted into an already existing matrix of disasters for communities of color. But COVID-19 is not a natural disaster. It is a consequence of processes of globalization that have created a complex activity system of relationships between the social and natural worlds, and serves to threaten each. If educational institutions are unwilling to see the role they have played to construct this world, then they will only be interested in basic safety measures that must be in place to continue to regulate children and young adults into standardized mechanisms of thought meant to adhere them to the dogma of economic law and racialism.The Black radical tradition was birthed from the spirit of revolt against the inherent conditions of the unfree.

The insistence on restoring the economy and the educational paradigms that uphold it pretend that economics is a natural science rather than a social science; that its laws are immutable, and that there is no way, other than through an ever-growing web of production and consumption, to exist in this social world. Educational leaders could look to the examples of Black educational theory to create new metrics for rebirth. They could recognize not only this pandemic but the current uprising for Black lives as the inevitable death of a social order that prioritizes vulgar economics over human and non-human relationships. They could prioritize the freedom of marginalized communities as the pathway forward, questioning the roles of the constructs of race, gender, sexuality, ability, productivity and citizenship.

In more concrete terms, if educational leaders were to apply a theory of Black radical education, they may invest in the following:

In more direct terms, schools need only reopen if they join the social unrest and actively combat the greater public health crisis of systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality. Otherwise, the reward of “safety” is not worth the risk of perpetuating injustice. If nothing else, concerned people must understand themselves as educational leaders, and question the educational theories guiding the decisions being made for the vast majority in an attempt to restore the brutal consequences of the global economic order.

Many historians and other scholars say what Americans have traditionally learned about the complex post-Civil War period falls short of what we should know.

The Conversation

  • Tiffany Mitchell Patterson

Many African Americans made education a high priority after the Civil War. Image from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I’ll never forget a student’s response when I asked during a middle school social studies class what they knew about black history: “Martin Luther King freed the slaves.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929, more than six decades after the time of enslavement. To me, this comment underscored how closely Americans associate black history with slavery.

While shocked, I knew this mistaken belief reflected the lack of time, depth and breadth schools devote to black history. Most students get limited information and context about what African Americans have experienced since our ancestors arrived here four centuries ago. Without independent study, most adults aren’t up to speed either.

For instance, what do you know about Reconstruction?

I’m excited about new resources for teaching children, and everyone else, more about the history of slavery through The New York Times’ “1619 Project.” But based on my experience teaching social studies and my current work preparing social studies educators, I also consider understanding what happened during the Reconstruction essential for exploring black power, resilience and excellence.

During that complex period after the Civil War, African Americans gained political power yet faced the backlash of white supremacy and racial violence. I share the concerns many writers, historians and other scholars are raising about the shortcomings of what schoolchildren traditionally learn about Reconstruction in school. Here are some suggestions for educators and others interested in learning more about that time period.

Reconstruction Amendments

As most students do learn, the U.S. gained three constitutional amendments that extended civil and political rights to newly freed African Americans following the Civil War.

The 13th, ratified in 1865, banned slavery and involuntary servitude except for the punishment of a crime.

The 14th, ratified three years later, granted citizenship and equal protection under the law to all people born in the United States, as well as naturalized citizens – including all previously enslaved individuals.

Then, the 15th Amendment asserted that neither the federal government nor state governments could deny voting rights to any male citizen.

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment on Feb. 3, 1870. The anniversary is a good opportunity to learn about how the amendment was supposed to guarantee that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”


African Americans celebrated the 15th Amendment’s ratification. Image from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

African American Politicians

What few history and social studies classes explore is how these changes to the Constitution made it possible for African American men to use their newfound political power to gain representation.

Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American senator, represented Mississippi in 1870 after the state’s Senate elected him. He was among the 16 black men from seven southern states who served in Congress during Reconstruction.

Revels and his colleagues were only part of the story. All told, about 2,000 African Americans held public office at some level of government during Reconstruction.

White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan also formed following the Civil War. These terrorist groups engaged in violence and other racist tactics to intimidate African Americans, people of color, black voters and legislators. They thus made the accomplishments of African American politicians even more impressive as they served as public officials under the constant threat of racial violence.


The first African American members of Congress were elected after the Civil War. Image from Currier and Ives via the Library of Congress.

Black Activist Women

African American women technically gained the right to vote in 1920, when the 19th Amendment passed. However, their constitutional right was limited in many states due to discriminatory laws.


Mary Church Terrell, an educator, fought for the rights of women of color. Image from the National Archives Docs Teach collection.

Many black women were activists and women’s suffrage movement leaders. Through public speaking, prolific writing and developing organizations dedicated to racial and and gender equality, they fought for equal rights and dignity for all.

Among the black women who were activists during Reconstruction were the five Rollins sisters of South Carolina, who fought for female voting rights; Maria Stewart, an outspoken abolitionist before the Civil War and suffragist once it ended; and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper, one of the first black female lawyers in the country and an advocate for granting women the right to vote.

Other women of color who played key roles in the suffrage movement included Ida B. Wells, the journalist and civil rights advocate who raised awareness of lynching, and Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women.

Higher Education

Before the Civil War, many states made teaching enslaved individuals to read a crime. Education quickly became a top priority for black Americans once slavery ended.

While northern, largely white philanthropists and missionary groups and the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, did help create new educational opportunities, the African American public schools established after the Civil War ended were largely built and staffed by the black community.

Many new institutions of higher education, now called Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs, began to operate during Reconstruction.

These schools trained black people to become teachers and ministers, doctors and nurses. They also prepared African Americans for careers in industrial and agricultural fields.

Public and private HBCUs founded during Reconstruction and still operating today include Howard University in Washington, D.C., Hampton University in Virginia, Alabama State UniversityMorehouse College in Georgia and Morgan State University in Maryland. These colleges and universities train a disproportionate share of black doctors and other professionals even today.


Morehouse graduates from the class of 2013 celebrated in the rain when President Obama delivered their commencement address. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Historical Experiences

Storytelling, multimedia experiences and trips to historic sites and creative museums help get people of any age interested in learning about history.

Depending on where you live, you may want to embark on a family outing or school field trip.

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has a new permanent exhibit on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington, D.C. in 2017, contains artifacts from the Reconstruction era. It’s also making the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, including the names of formerly enslaved individuals following the Civil War, available online.

Another option is the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in Beaufort County, South Carolina.

I also recommend watching the PBS documentaries about Reconstruction by the scholar and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. and reading the young adult book Gates co-authored with children’s nonfiction writer Tonya Bolden about the era. Gates has also compiled a Reconstruction reading list for adults.

In addition, the organization Teaching for Change curates a booklist on Reconstruction for middle and high school students. And the Zinn Education Project Teach Reconstruction Campaign offers a variety of resources including readings, primary sources and even lesson plans.

An Incomplete Transition

As the renowned black scholar W.E.B. DuBois observed, racist laws and violent tactics in many states actively limited black freedom.

“The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” he explained.

This was by no means voluntary. Intimidated and threatened by black enfranchisement and excellence in the era of Reconstruction, white supremacists attempted to enforce subordination through violence, such as lynching; and in systemic ways through Jim Crow laws. African Americans continued to assert their civil and constitutional rights as activists, politicians, business owners, teachers and farmers in the midst of white supremacist backlash.

With the latest voter suppression efforts restricting access to the ballot box for voters of color and the resurgence of racist violence and vitriol today, DuBois’ words sound eerily familiar. At the same time it’s reassuring to recall how quickly formerly enslaved African Americans made their way to schoolhouses and public offices.

Tiffany Mitchell Patterson is an Assistant Professor of Secondary Social Studies at West Virginia University.