As Republican state legislators push laws regulating curriculum and Confederate monuments fall, the political battle over the nation’s history has intensified. Whose voices and perspectives are remembered has become a prime culture-war issue — one that conservatives seem determined to exploit.
But that simply isn’t true. In fact, there are millions of Southerners from this era worth honoring. Many of them, however, have been erased from our history because they were Black. K-12 education has long minimized their contributions and refused to understand them as “Southerners” who fought to make their birthplace a more just and equitable place for all of its inhabitants.
For over a century, celebrating Confederate history depended on erasing the many movements led by African Americans within the region. Writers in the Jim Crow era sketched a romanticized vision of the antebellum period that portrayed Southern Whites as gallant agrarians who simply wanted to live free from Northern industrialism. Those who owned enslaved people were represented as paternal figures who promoted Christian values, while people of African descent were portrayed as passive recipients of Christian civilization and rarely given a voice in this mythic narrative.
Yet, many Southern African Americans worked for social change and never surrendered to white supremacy or institutionalized racism. Examples of these efforts abound, but nowhere was this more prevalent or powerful than in South Carolina between 1868 and 1876 during the period known as “Reconstruction,” when Southern-born African Americans were at the forefront of the campaigns for societal improvement. Reclaiming these narratives brings both complexity and accuracy to our understanding of the past and of the South — and it challenges political efforts seeking to manipulate the past to advance White supremacy, then and now.
Though it is often glossed over in general K-12 curriculums, the brief moment of Reconstruction was a crucial shift toward forming a better American republic, as it set a standard for reform activism that still provides a blueprint for modern social justice campaigns. And it was Southern Black men and women during this period who were leading the charge for social change.
In 1868, South Carolina held a constitutional convention, at which a majority of the delegates were Black. They created and passed a new state constitution, which, among its many elements, declared an end to discrimination based upon race and allotted funding toward free public education. The destruction of racist policies and the expansion of educational services for all South Carolinians was a hallmark of this postwar moment, and it established a pathway for Black Southern excellence that is vastly underappreciated in local, state and national histories.
Consider someone like Robert Smalls, born enslaved in Beaufort, S.C., in 1839. Using his knowledge of low-country waterways and his skills as a ship pilot, he, his family and members of his community escaped from slavery by piloting a Confederate cotton steamer and delivering it to the Union Army. He continued his remarkable career in the postwar period by serving in governmental positions throughout the state, culminating in five nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1874 and 1895.
Henry E. Hayne is another example. Born in Charleston, S.C., during the 1840s, he worked diligently to expand educational access to society’s most marginalized populations. Bolstered by the Reconstruction goals of the “Radical Republicans,” Hayne served in a variety of state governmental positions before he became the first Black student to enroll at the University of South Carolina in 1873. His matriculation was remarkably impactful, as it encouraged a flood of Black students to enroll in an institution that just one decade before was reserved for the sons of the state’s wealthiest enslavers.
In addition to Hayne’s maneuver, South Carolina’s multiracial legislature made higher education in the state more accessible by making the university tuition-free and providing students of all races the opportunity to compete for state scholarships that would subvert any financial hardships they might encounter during their years of study. This expansion of public funding gave opportunities to formerly enslaved Southerners like William Henry Heard, who spent his early postwar years in Georgia learning to read and write by scheduling independent study sessions around his duties as a hired agricultural laborer. Heard eventually secured a scholarship and attended the University of South Carolina, a critical turning point in his professional life. After leaving school, he rapidly rose through the ranks of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and by 1895, he was appointed the U.S. ambassador to Liberia.
The racially integrated university not only expanded access to marginalized populations, but some testimonials also suggest it fractured the racial hierarchy established in the antebellum era. T. McCants Stewart, a Black lawyer and clergyman who attended the school during Reconstruction, described the remarkable camaraderie shared by the students, “I want it distinctly understood that the University of South Carolina is not in possession of any one race. … The two races study together, visit each other’s rooms, play ball together, and walk into the city together, without the blacks feeling honored or the whites disgraced.”
And it wasn’t just elected officials or university graduates who served their states. Celia Dial Saxon, a Black South Carolinian born in 1857, received her teaching credentials at the State Normal School in 1877 and dedicated nearly six decades of her life to educating and uplifting the state’s Black student population. Her impact was so significant that, upon her death in 1935, the funeral hall was standing room only and thousands of people waited outside to pay their respects to a woman who had tirelessly served her community.
In the end, the belief that the South’s past is only worthy of national scorn, or that enslavers and segregationists encapsulate the entirety of the region’s history, shows how Black Southern activists have been erased from its regional memory. For even during the most violent periods of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, Black leaders were always present and outspoken. Knowing this is crucial to understanding our heritage as well as the activism of today. If Americans truly believe the South is bereft of individuals worth honoring at the U.S. Capitol or studying in classrooms throughout the country, it is only because we have collectively failed to consider that the totality of U.S. history does not need to revolve around the narratives of rich White men.