The period following the Civil War is the story of great expectations, enormous strides and wrenching retreats. In Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes the triumphs and the backlash of that era and shows that even 150 years later, our present still reflects our past.

With this new two-part series, which premieres on April 9 on WGBH 2, Gates continues a tradition of producing sophisticated documentaries about the African American experience, including his Emmy Award-winning film The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross as well as African American Lives and Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.

Producing Reconstruction: America After the Civil War was important because of its relevance to the current state of race relations. “We wanted to use this as a cautionary tale for where America is today,” he said in March at the SXSW EDU Conference and Festival.

Part One of the documentary describes the aftermath of the Civil War—exhilarating yet uncertain. Four million newly freed African Americans faced the future untethered from the old plantation system, with few rights or protections. The Civil Rights Act in 1866 declared that all people born in the United States were citizens with equal rights under the law, and the change was profound. “Eighty percent of all eligible black men in the former confederacy registered to vote in the summer of 1867—that’s unheard of,” he said. “And in 1868, they voted.”

In that general election, Gates said that 500,000 newly freed black men voted for Ulysses S. Grant. “Former slaves, black men—by and large illiterate—elected a president of the United States,” he said. Over the next 12 years, 16 black men—including two senators—were elected to the US Congress. “It was a nightmare for the former confederates, and the South rose again.”

Shocked and alarmed by the power of the black vote, former confederates decided they needed to squelch the new-found freedoms granted to former slaves and, bit by bit, they did. By the 1876 presidential election, both leading candidates—Democrat and Republican—pledged to bring an end to Reconstruction.

Part Two, airing on April 16 on WGBH 2, features the transitional period between 1877 and 1896 and the vision of a “New South” that set the stage for the rise of Jim Crow and the undermining of Reconstruction’s legacy. By the 20th century, white supremacist propaganda began to change the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, glorifying the fallen heroes of the Confederacy and painting Reconstruction as a tragic mistake. But even when facing both physical and psychological oppression, African Americans found ways to fight back. With photography, theater, music and writing, they began to put forward their vision of a “New Negro” for a new century.

Reconstruction remains one of the most consequential yet most misunderstood chapters in American history. “Our film will tell the real story of Reconstruction, honoring the struggle of the African Americans who fought their way out of slavery and challenged the nation to live up to the founding ideals of democracy, freedom and equality,” Gates said. “But we will also tell the tragic story of the sustained and often violent pushback against Reconstruction’s determination to secure equal rights for black people, and the subsequent rise of white supremacy,” he added. “More than 150 years later, this struggle continues.”

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