Convinced that the era of Reconstruction (1865-1877) was a “great missed opportunity” in American history, an international team of scholars in 2006 created the Web site afterslavery.com as a venue for further study on the subject. In the three years since, the site has become a valuable central meeting place for scholars, teachers and the general public to learn more about the end of slavery and how African Americans and whites responded to the changes brought about by emancipation.
Web site creators Brian Kelly of Queen’s University Belfast, Bruce E. Baker of University of London-Royal Holloway and Susan Eva O’Donovan of the University of Memphis, leading historians in the field, have approached their task with impressive passion. Their Web site is sustained through funding by the (United Kingdom) Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina, and also the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
The site explores the historiography of Reconstruction, addressing the overt prejudice in early scholarship on the period that assumed black racial inferiority in addition to more recent efforts to celebrate the active roles that African Americans played in securing their own freedom. The site’s creators are also looking at the era as a labor struggle led by working people seeking to redefine their place in the South.
One of the greatest strengths of afterslavery.com is its willingness to embrace the complexity and contradictions of Reconstruction, a situation that varied greatly between states and even counties. To maintain clarity amid such complexities, the site focuses on the post-emancipation Carolinas. These states contained regions where freedmen and women outnumbered whites dramatically, where non-slaveholding whites outnumbered slaveholders and vice versa, and pockets of rural isolation along with urban enclaves. By confining their study to North and South Carolina, the site manages to represent the diverse and sometimes irregular responses to emancipation that occurred throughout the South.
The site’s “Online Classroom” section breaks Reconstruction into units that viewers can use to study key themes of the era, such as “Freed Slaves Mobilize” and “Conservatives Respond to Emancipation.” Each unit contains topic summaries in addition to a collection of primary source documents that support and elaborate the points made in the lesson. The “Online Library” offers a list of recommended reading, and “Web Resources” contains links to other important sites that focus on the post-emancipation South.
The afterslavery.com site seeks to be the “most user-friendly, pedagogically innovative and visually and technologically impressive educational Web site available to anyone interested in studying the aftermath of slavery in the United States.” It’s well on it way to achieving that goal.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.