National Constitution Center Photo by the author

New exhibit at the National Constitution Center explores the Reconstruction Era

If you did not know that the years immediately following the Civil War were a period of unparalleled flourishing of the formerly enslaved populations of the South, then you are to be forgiven. It is not emphasized in our school curricula nor is it really a major subject in our colleges. But President and CEO of the National Constitution Center Jeffrey Rosen is trying to change that with the new permanent exhibit Civil War and Reconstruction: the Battle for Freedom and Equality which will open on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

Dr. Rosen, who is also professor at the George Washington University Law School, has given particular emphasis to the relevant constitutional law as it was shaped, drafted, and developed in the aftermath of the Civil War. There are interactive displays of the three key Amendments which altered the United States Constitution following the Civil War: the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to freed blacks, and the 15th Amendment which enshrined the right to vote without discrimination.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., distinguished Alphonse Fletcher Professor at Harvard University and author of Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, (Penguin Press, 2019) animated the press preview with his impressive knowledge of the period and his remarkable ability to engage an audience. Dr. Gates spoke of the four Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which provided voting rights for enslaved men in the South before those rights were enshrined in the Constitution for the entire country. Because the Southern States actually had majority populations of black Americans and such a large proportion of formerly enslaved men voted, an estimated two thousand black men were elected to office during the Reconstruction Era, including two US Senators and twenty congressmen.

The First Colored Senator and Representatives


The exhibit is a brilliantly designed mix of documents, artifacts, and interactive displays which show the progression from a society dependent on free agrarian labor, to one at war, to a marvelous period of national renewal, and then a continual spiral of hate and bigotry. The interactive displays of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments show the debates, the drafts, and the redrafting of those amendments and help to explain how the final draft actually allowed forced labor “as a punishment for crime” (13th Amendment). It does not take long to make the connection between the 13th Amendment and the shockingly profitable system of prison labor and prison farms which still exists today.

The power of the vote changed our nation for that brief period from 1870 to 1901. During that time racist propaganda, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the withdrawal of both the promise of land for freed enslaved peoples and the troops to protect them gradually eroded the Civil Rights of black Americans.

In his book, Stony the Road, Mr. Gates points out that we are facing similar challenges to civil equality today:

The eruption of the expression of white supremacist ideology in what increasingly appears to be a determined attempt to roll back the very phenomenon of a black presidency is just one reason that the rise and fall of Reconstruction and the surge of white supremacy in the former Confederate states following the end of the Civil War are especially relevant subjects for Americans to reflect upon at this moment in the history of our democracy. In fact, I’d venture that few American historical periods are more relevant to understanding our contemporary racial politics than Reconstruction.

Philadelphia schools have already committed to take advantage of the resource. Jeffrey Rosen has joined with Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, William Hite, to launch a Constitutional Ambassadors Program this coming September which will bring tens of thousands of students to see this exhibit.

Would that their endeavor will educate all of us about the power of our constitution and the importance of the right to vote. This new permanent exhibit is a vivid and detailed illustration of both.

[Civil War and Reconstruction: the Battle for Freedom and Equality opens on May 9, 2019 at the National Constitution Center, Independence Mall, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia. 215.409.6700 or constitutioncenter.org]

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