Make Good the Promises
Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Paul Gardullo
The companion volume to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture exhibit, opening in September 2021
With a Foreword by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Eric Foner and a preface by veteran museum director and historian Spencer Crew
An incisive and illuminating analysis of the enduring legacy of the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction—a comprehensive story of Black Americans’ struggle for human rights and dignity and the failure of the nation to fulfill its promises of freedom, citizenship, and justice.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, millions of free and newly freed African Americans were determined to define themselves as equal citizens in a country without slavery—to own land, build secure families, and educate themselves and their children. Seeking to secure safety and justice, they successfully campaigned for civil and political rights, including the right to vote. Across an expanding America, Black politicians were elected to all levels of government, from city halls to state capitals to Washington, DC.
But those gains were short-lived. By the mid-1870s, the federal government stopped enforcing civil rights laws, allowing white supremacists to use suppression and violence to regain power in the Southern states. Black men, women, and children suffered racial terror, segregation, and discrimination that confined them to second-class citizenship, a system known as Jim Crow that endured for decades.
More than a century has passed since the revolutionary political, social, and economic movement known as Reconstruction, yet its profound consequences reverberate in our lives today. Make Good the Promises explores five distinct yet intertwined legacies of Reconstruction—Liberation, Violence, Repair, Place, and Belief—to reveal their lasting impact on modern society. It is the story of Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Hiram Revels, Ida B. Wells, and scores of other Black men and women who reshaped a nation—and of the persistence of white supremacy and the perpetuation of the injustices of slavery continued by other means and codified in state and federal laws.
With contributions by leading scholars, and illustrated with 80 images from the exhibition, Make Good the Promises shows how Black Lives Matter, #SayHerName, antiracism, and other current movements for repair find inspiration from the lessons of Reconstruction. It touches on questions critical then and now: What is the meaning of freedom and equality? What does it mean to be an American? Powerful and eye-opening, it is a reminder that history is far from past; it lives within each of us and shapes our world and who we are.
Supplemental enhancement PDF accompanies the audiobook.