Take Note: Historian Kidada Williams On Black Americans "Seizing Freedom" During Reconstruction

Mar 26, 2021

Kidada Williams
Credit Kidada Williams

Today we’re going to hear the untold stories of Black Americans during the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.

The podcast “Seizing Freedom” draws from historical records of formerly enslaved people who fought for the everyday freedoms many of us now take for granted.

Our guest is the host and producer of the podcast, Kidada Williams. Williams is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University.

Today’s interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute’s Jenna Spinelle interviewed Williams about the long-standing quest to make America a full-fledged multiracial democracy. Here’s that interview:

Jenna Spinelle:  

So lots to talk about: your podcast "Seizing Freedom," your broader work on Reconstruction, which I think is a really interesting topic to be thinking about right now. And I actually want to start with something that my colleague and co-host on the show, Candace Watts Smith talked about during our first episode after the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol. She frames a lot of what happened that day as a kind of a counter to the work that, you know, folks like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and you know, William Barber in the the Poor People's Campaign had been doing to kind of lay the groundwork for a Third Reconstruction. And I know that this notion of a third Reconstruction more broadly has gotten a lot of attention, following the deaths of George Floyd and others over this past summer. And so I'm wondering how you think about this notion of of a Third Reconstruction and whether we might be laying the groundwork for that?

Kidada Williams:  

Well, I think I would say I believe that we are in need of a Third Reconstruction. Whether or not we're actually there, in terms of advancing the rights of African Americans and other marginalized people in America, I'm not sure. And I'm not sure because of the election, and because of what happened at the Capitol. And even the sort of reaction to it. As you know, we have all of these calls for unity and reconciliation, without accountability, etc. So I believe that we are in need of a third Reconstruction, I just don't know that we're there.

Jenna Spinelle:  

Right. And I guess, the other thing I've been thinking about is even just that the notion of thinking about a new Reconstruction just leads me to wonder like whether the first two ever were really fully realized.

Kidada Williams:  

I don't believe that they were fully realized. But I think when we sort of think about that, we've got to be careful, we've got to be honest about what made it... you know, sort of like what stopped it from being realized. And in both cases, you've got this reality of a greater commitment to whiteness. And so in both, you know, the Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the Second Reconstruction, which you know, is the Civil Rights movement, there was a larger part of the... or good portion of the white population that is resistant to sharing American freedom, that doesn't quite believe in American democracy for all that doesn't really believe that. And so there's a lot of resistance to it. And you know, when we have not achieved those goals, when we have not honored what we put on paper, both in the founding and then in the Reconstruction era, when we don't do that when we don't fully commit to it, we never quite get there. And so I think it's important to sort of make sure that we thread that needle. Because what happened after the First Reconstruction, is that he got reframed as a failure. And that idea of a failure doesn't really acknowledge what actually happened. And so when I probe people, when I push them to say what failed, what they essentially do is regurgitate the "Lost Cause" narrative. Which is that Black people failed to live up to the promise of freedom, and not the reality, which is that a large portion of the white population was resistant to extending American freedom and democracy to more people. And so that also the knowledge of the history of what happened and how it was framed, shapes how I, as a historian, experience and sort of observe this current moment, if that makes sense.

Jenna Spinelle:  

Yeah, no, totally. And that's part of the story you're trying to tell on "Seizing Freedom," right, and kind of bringing this out this, you know, I don't know if if counter narrative is, is the right word, but something that is outside of the sort of the mainstream historical view of Reconstruction and the "Lost Cause" and those types of things?

Kidada Williams:  

Well, it's certainly outside of the the sort of view of the history of Reconstruction that's rooted in the Lost Cause. The story we're telling is one that historians of the era know quite well, it's the larger public that doesn't know it. So those of us who are professors, we teach this history in our classes. But it doesn't trickle down to the masses. And so what the masses have been exposed to is this larger narrative of the era that is sort of rooted in the Lost Cause, which essentially erases African Americans from the history of the war, and its aftermath. And it casts them as docile and content in bondage on the one hand, and menacing to white women on the other. And so what we as historians know is that if you center African Americans in the history of the war, and Reconstruction, then you have a more accurate understanding of what actually happened and why. So you get a sense of what freedom actually entailed. Freedom is a larger process. And we try to show that process in the show. And freedom is also something that has to be seized. It's not something that's sort of handed out or awarded to African Americans. African Americans have to fight for it. But you only know that if you follow them through the War and Reconstruction, and so that's the story we're trying to tell, we're trying to tell the story of what they want, which is freedom, but what that means to them, and why they have to fight for it against the reality of a good portion of the white population's resistance to it, or their belief that they as white people should get to dictate to Black people what their freedom should look like. What we see in this moment, is a backlash to the sort of possibilities of a more multiracial democracy that sort of emerged in response to Barack Obama being elected, and then the world that... the sort of expansion of rights and privileges and freedoms to more people. And so what we see in the election, and then the aftermath is a backlash to that. And as a historian, I know we've been here before, and I think the audience will be able to see some of those parallels very clearly.

Jenna Spinelle:  

Sure. I want to I want to come back to this question of, of the ongoing struggle to achieve a multiracial, multiethnic democracy. But you know, you're bringing up some of these the stories of violence. I think that ties to your book, "They Left Great Marks on Me," which is in an accounting of testimonies of this violence during Reconstruction. Can you talk a little bit about how and when these these testimonies were were given. And even just, you know, the fact of getting to giving them were there even, you know, obstacles to even getting these things down on paper or part of the record, so to speak.

Kidada Williams:  

So one of the things we see after the war, as emancipation goes into effect, is reprisal violence. And so what happens is that a lot of the former slaveholders and those people who want to become slaveholders, but I like to say who hadn't gotten their money together yet, so they couldn't sort of buy into slavery, what we start to see is them lashing out at African Americans who are trying to sort of make freedom real. And this is even before they press for things like equal rights, even before they press for citizenship. So African Americans, newly freed people, are experiencing on a daily basis extreme amounts of violence and retaliation. It's, you know, you see it when soldiers, Black soldiers return to their former communities to try to reclaim their loved ones, many of them are attacked and killed. As people try to leave plantations and farms, they are attacked and killed. And what we start to see is that they report this violence, not necessarily to local authorities who many of them are still, you know, from the former slavocracy, is they report them to the Freedmen's Bureau, which is this sort of offshoot of the Union war effort. And so you have a lot of military officials who are now overseeing the Freedmen's Bureau. So African Americans report this violence to them. And then they document their testimonies. They document their accounts. They take affidavits. With the hope of possibly trying to get justice for them. So that's where the records are created. But they're created in response to the reprisal violence that African Americans are already experiencing. And because that violence goes unchecked, what happens is that the former slaveholders, they start to become more organized. When they realize that they're not going to pay a price for secession and the war they do what they can to essentially reestablish slavery in as many ways as possible. And African Americans fight that. They resist it. And so what white supremacists do, what the former slavocracy does, is it ramps up the violence. And you start to see this more paramilitary violence that is directed at African Americans trying to hold on to their freedom and to make freedom real. And so when they are attacked, they continue to report this violence to anyone who will listen: local authorities, state authorities, federal authorities. And then over time, as the violence becomes too difficult to ignore, and it starts to undermine the election process, federal officials, particularly in Congress, decided they want to investigate what's going on. They want to conduct these investigations. And so they invite attacked people to participate in the hearings. And so attacked people go to these different sites and they tell their stories. And these stories are really, in my view, they're part of the unmaking of freedom. They're showing the war against freedom, and the war that's being waged on Black people by the former Confederate. And so we've got this really important record of Reconstruction that hasn't gotten the attention that it deserves. And if you ignore what's going on in this history, then you don't fully understand the rollback of Reconstruction. You don't really understand redemption, etc. So we've got this really important historical records of African Americans telling the story, trying to communicate the violations on them and the violations of the peace.

Jenna Spinelle:  

During the the Reconstruction era... I know you also write about African Americans sort of solidifying the notion of citizenship, and you know, what it means for them to be democratic citizens. Can you talk about kind of where that concept came from and and how, if at all, it perhaps evolved over the course of the Reconstruction era?

Kidada Williams:  

Well, I think that it comes from a larger belief amongst African Americans in their right to enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else in this society. And we'll see this earlier in the sort of, if we think about the late 18th century and the early 19th century, as you start to see a much larger free Black population. So after emancipation, in so the first wave of emancipation in the north, after the American Revolution. African Americans are gaining their freedom. They're being born free. And then they expect to be able to participate in the American, you know, the sort of American experiment. They expect to be able to enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else in the society. They want what's in the Declaration of Independence. They want the rights and privileges spelled out there and in the US constitution. But what they're finding is that there's a lot of white resistance to it. So there will be white people in the society who will say, well, Black people should be free, they should not be enslaved. But they don't go so far as to agree that Black people should also enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else in the society enjoys. And African Americans argue that they should, and that they have a birthright citizenship. By virtue of their birth in the United States that they should enjoy the same rights and privileges as everyone else in society. And so African Americans have been pressing for this long before the Civil War actually happens. But the war and then Union victory and the willingness of a small sect of radical Republicans to listen to them, and to try to help make it a reality is what spreads this larger ideal amongst more African Americans about their right to participate in this larger process because for them, that's what justice after slavery looks like. So the larger population believes... the larger white population believes... that slavery only meant being paid, you know, not being paid for your labor. And we know that's absolutely not true. And African Americans, both those who were held in bondage, or whose parents or grandparents were held in bondage, knew that slavery was so much more than being paid for your labor. And so afterwards what they want, it's justice. And justice means different things to different people. But there's a lot of overlap there. So justice means having your family but it also means your right to play a role in the political process, to determine who's going to set policy over you. It means your authority in governance. It means your ability to decide to vote for who is going to set policy shaping the lives of yourself, shaping your own life and the life of people in your family and in your community. And so there's a sort of an insistence, a refusal to accept no on this reality. Because, you know, they go back to the Declaration, they go back to the Constitution, and they say, this is what you put on paper. And this is what we want. We feel that by virtue of our enslavement and our participation in the war, our support of the Union cause in the war, that this is what we're owed.

Jenna Spinelle:  

Right. And and there's even if I understand your writing in "They Left Great Marks on Me" correctly, there's even kind of a questioning of Southern whites and their fitness for citizenship and and kind of starting to get at some of this notion of "Wait a second, like, are we really democracy here?" Or "Is this really what democracy should be?" Kind of getting at some of these issues of, you know, having a flourishing multiracial democracy.

Kidada Williams:  

Exactly. African Americans question, you know, they say... because one of the things that they recognize is that even after the war, that ex-Confederates don't necessarily demonstrate any greater fidelity to the nation's founding principles or to the union than they did before and during the war. And that's supported by even Secretary Stanton, Edwin Stanton after the war. You know, he's reading all of these reports, he's traveling across the region. And he's saying that yes, they stopped fighting on the battlefield. But they don't believe... they believe more in the idea of holding on to slavery than they do in union or even reunion. So African Americans recognize this, and they are frustrated. They are initially concerned. And then they're frustrated and outraged by the fact that the larger nation is more interested in reconciliation amongst white people than they are with justice. And so they're very frustrated that a lot of the ex-Confederates and a lot of their supporters are going to get more rights and privileges and respect than Black people do. And so they communicate that, you know, they say, apparently, it is a greater crime to be a negro than to be a traitor.

Jenna Spinelle:  

To bring us back to the sort of present moment... as I was reading about sort of these these testimonies in in Congress, I couldn't help but think about like, what, what would that look like today? Is that still an effective means to get stories out there, whether it's, you know, police violence or other issues of racial violence that are still very much a part of our country today. I mean, What impact might something like that have?  And I guess, it is necessary, given the fact that we have access to so much more forms of media today? You know, anybody can take a video on their phone and have it seen by millions of people throughout the country and throughout the world.

Kidada Williams:  

So I think that we have... we certainly have a different type of technology. African Americans, by virtue of their freedom and their ability to participate to a certain degree in the larger political process... African Americans have a greater audience, especially through social media, to sort of push the, you know, to push the national conversation. To force the media to address the reality of the situation in terms of racist violence and police violence in a way that they didn't before. And so even as we have that, even as we have access to technology, even as we have video, etc, we still have the reality of some people's commitment to whiteness, and how that allows them to refuse to know the reality of what's going on. And so, you know, African Americans today are in a safer position to protest violence than they were in the late 19th or early 20th century. So African Americans couldn't, you know, especially in the south, they couldn't stage street protests in response to a lynching. Many families, you know, today, families can hold a press conference, and file a civil suit against, you know, against police who shoot their loved ones. A century ago, their lives were in danger. They couldn't speak out publicly. And even after their loved ones are taken, many of them were severely surveilled. Or they didn't feel safe in their communities so they had to flee and move somewhere else. So what we have today is more access to more information. But what we also have is the reality of the ways that a commitment to whiteness allows people to receive the information in ways that they want. So and this happened in this earlier period, too. There were conservative lawmakers who could sit and listen to African Americans' testimonies of this violence and say, "Well, nothing really happened to you." Right? 

Jenna Spinelle:  

Yeah, you're you're here now, right? You're here talking to me.

Kidada Williams:  

Exactly. You lived, right. And what's really interesting during the testimonies is that a lot of times, lawmakers used the past tense. So they treat the violence as a discrete event, a one off. And survivors used the active present tense to communicate the sort of afterlife of the violence. You know, so they say "What they did is hurting me." It's not something that stopped hurting when the men left. It's continuing to hurt. And I think that what survivors of police and racist violence today can show us... I think about the families, the Charleston families from the massacre. What they can do, and what they have done, is shown us the afterlife to a certain degree of that violence. They are devastated by that violence. And I feel like part of what's happening today is that we don't have a full appreciation of that. And what we also have, and this is the point that I was making before, is that you can have people who will refuse to know about the harm of the violence, who will excuse police violence by any means, or who will treat someone like Dylann Roof as an aberration. Which in my view, and I think the view of a lot of people only allows the violence to continue.

Jenna Spinelle:  

I also think too about, you know, whether putting some of this onto the country's record, if it might help at least I don't know -- everybody is kind of media filter bubbles are sort of going to be what they're going to be -- but I wonder if it might help put lawmakers on the record as as having to react to this in in some way rather than... or at least, you know, forcing them to kind of grapple with it in in some way.

Kidada Williams:  

To be honest, in light of what we saw with both impeachments, I think that it might allow some people... so I'm not disputing the fact that it can have some good... We saw George Floyd's brother Philonise Floyd testify after his killing. I don't know, I think that it might persuade some people. But I think that we'll see some of the same reactions by potentially some very conservative lawmakers and conservative members of American society, react very much the same way conservative lawmakers did during Reconstruction, when African Americans testified before Congress at the Klan hearing. And so I guess what I'm asking is, what does it take? What will it take for the larger society, that mainstream society, to fully recognize and contend with the reality of the harms of a commitment to whiteness and to white supremacy? Does that make sense?

Jenna Spinelle:  

Yeah, no, that is that is such such a big question. It actually kind of ties into how I wanted to kind of bring us to a close here. You know we...  this this question of, you know, can the United States be a flourishing multiracial democracy? Something scholars have been talking about for for decades, if not longer. And I know that historians are not typically in the prediction business, but I'm just wondering where you sort of come down on that bigger question, given everything that you know, all the work that you've done about this history, and the, you know, trials and tribulations that Black people have experienced heretofore?

Kidada Williams:  

I will say that I am hopeful, but also very realistic. So I...to be honest, like, I'm worried. And I'm worried not because of anything that Black people have said or done. I'm worried because of the larger white society's commitment to whiteness. And so I just don't know that the people who are committed to whiteness will surrender their commitment to whiteness, in order to protect our democracy. I just don't know that that's going to happen. And I know that Black and other marginalized people will pay the price for that. And so on the one hand, I'm hopeful but on the other hand, as a historian and as an African American woman, I'm concerned.

Jenna Spinelle:  

You know, I think that your podcast will certainly I think help folks kind of grapple with some of the stories and hear some of this history that they might not have heard otherwise and will perhaps be a first step on that journey. Well, we will leave it there. Kidada, Thank you so much for joining us today.

Kidada Williams:  

Thank you so much for having me.