Then & Now

A NOTE FROM THE PLAYWRIGHT ON “MOMENT” AND RECONSTRUCTION

Many years ago I read a book by the renowned historian W.E.B. Dubois called ‘Black Reconstruction’ that stood on its head much of what I knew of the Civil War and post-civil war history. Dubois described as a general strike the massive walking-off the plantation of Black slaves to join the northern troops during the war, and detailed a remarkable set of events that unfolded in the South from 1866-1876, known as Reconstruction. After retiring from four decades as a union organizer and campaigner I’ve taken an opportunity to tell a story of this critical period when, I like to say, “America almost did the right thing.”

This play has been a cooperative effort. It started with long hours of research that led me to decide there was a Baltimore story to be told and I assembled the characters to tell it. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 as a ship caulker in Baltimore. Isaac Myers became a caulker in the same ship yard that Douglass worked, and after the Civil War began organizing Black workers into unions across the country, forming what was called the (Colored) National Labor Union, with Douglass’ assistance. William Sylvis was an iron worker and president of the National Labor Union (NLU), founded in Baltimore in 1866. Francis Harper, an African American teacher, abolitionist, feminist and poet was born in Baltimore in 1825. Lastly Susan B. Anthony, an abolitionist, suffragette and by 1869 an organizer of women workers, gave her final speech in 1906 in Baltimore.

These facts helped me create a Baltimore home for the story and choose a Baltimore venue for the production. The musical became a story of a fictional meeting of these historic leaders, in 1869. Although this meeting never happened, they knew each other and much of the music and spoken word is based on actual language taken from their writings and speeches during this period.

After creating the original script, lyrics and beginning melodies I worked with my creative team, Darryl! LC Moch, Glenn Pearson and Chester Burke, to create full blown musical numbers. Our talented cast helped refine and develop the work to bring The Moment Was Now to the stage.

Maryland at the time of the Civil War was a slave state but also ‘border state’ where free African Americans lived. Although Maryland didn’t join the Confederacy, many Marylanders did go south to fight on the confederate side.

During Reconstruction, Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments outlawing slavery, providing civil rights for all, citizenship for anyone born in the US and in 1870 the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all, regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Federal troops were stationed in the South to protect the rights of African Americans from the violence of the KKK and the former plantation owners. A Freedman’s Bureau was set up to administer these rights, new state constitutions were drafted, public education was dramatically expanded to all and Blacks in the South were elected to local, state and national offices, including the US House and Senate.

In 1877, the Federal troops were pulled out and plantation owners retook power, with the help of the KKK, leading to sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, lynching and the denial of the vote for African Americans until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The reversal of the gains of Reconstruction was a setback for everyone including women and white workers.

This history resonates with our current moment, therefore the name “The Moment Was Now.”  It has been 400 years since the first kidnapped Africans were brought to Jamestown. It has been 100 years since women got the right to vote and we just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ birth. A century and a half after the NLU was formed, unions continue to be under attack. And, sadly, this year the President denigrated Baltimore as “disgusting.”

This play celebrates Baltimore and its history and shows the determination among the main protagonists to build unity in the fight for workers’ rights, women’s rights and genuine racial equality in 1869. There are many lessons to be learned from them as we engage in those same challenges today.

This story reveals that the struggle for freedom by African Americans throughout our history has helped usher in the other social justice movements. Together these movements have sought to make real the promise of democracy in the Declaration of Independence. I dedicate this show to my parents, Gertrude and John, who gave me an appreciation for musical theater and who loved me unconditionally. And to my friend and mentor, the historian Theodore Allen, who helped me form my historical perspective. Lastly, to my wife Evie and daughter Nadja, who have been an integral part of this work from start to finish.

I hope you enjoy the show. — Gene Bruskin


 

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Gene Bruskin, Playwright

Gene Bruskin, Playwright


Learn More About the Era

The NYT 1619 Project
The New York Times 1610 Project re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. Below, you can read the an article entitled “America Wasn't a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One", by Nikole Hannah-Jones from the August 14, 2019, Magazine edition.

Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.

During this nation’s brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, formerly enslaved people zealously engaged with the democratic process. With federal troops tempering widespread white violence, black Southerners started branches of the Equal Rights League — one of the nation’s first human rights organizations — to fight discrimination and organize voters; they headed in droves to the polls, where they placed other formerly enslaved people into seats that their enslavers had once held.

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The South, for the first time in the history of this country, began to resemble a democracy, with black Americans elected to local, state and federal offices. Some 16 black men served in Congress — including Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who became the first black man elected to the Senate. More than 600 black men served in Southern state legislatures and hundreds more in local positions.



These black officials joined with white Republicans, some of whom came down from the North, to write the most egalitarian state constitutions the South had ever seen. They helped pass more equitable tax legislation and laws that prohibited discrimination in public transportation, accommodation and housing. Perhaps their biggest achievement was the establishment of that most democratic of American institutions: the public school. Public education effectively did not exist in the South before Reconstruction. The white elite sent their children to private schools, while poor white children went without an education. But newly freed black people, who had been prohibited from learning to read and write during slavery, were desperate for an education. So black legislators successfully pushed for a universal, state-funded system of schools — not just for their own children but for white children, too. Black legislators also helped pass the first compulsory education laws in the region. Southern children, black and white, were now required to attend schools like their Northern counterparts. Just five years into Reconstruction, every Southern state had enshrined the right to a public education for all children into its constitution. In some states, like Louisiana and South Carolina, small numbers of black and white children, briefly, attended schools together.

Led by black activists and a Republican Party pushed left by the blatant recalcitrance of white Southerners, the years directly after slavery saw the greatest expansion of human and civil rights this nation would ever see. In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, making the United States one of the last nations in the Americas to outlaw slavery. The following year, black Americans, exerting their new political power, pushed white legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act, the nation’s first such law and one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed. It codified black American citizenship for the first time, prohibited housing discrimination and gave all Americans the right to buy and inherit property, make and enforce contracts and seek redress from courts. In 1868, Congress ratified the 14th Amendment, ensuring citizenship to any person born in the United States. Today, thanks to this amendment, every child born here to a European, Asian, African, Latin American or Middle Eastern immigrant gains automatic citizenship. The 14th Amendment also, for the first time, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection under the law. Ever since, nearly all other marginalized groups have used the 14th Amendment in their fights for equality (including the recent successful arguments before the Supreme Court on behalf of same-sex marriage). Finally, in 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the most critical aspect of democracy and citizenship — the right to vote — to all men regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

For this fleeting moment known as Reconstruction, the majority in Congress seemed to embrace the idea that out of the ashes of the Civil War, we could create the multiracial democracy that black Americans envisioned even if our founding fathers did not.

But it would not last.

Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity. The many gains of Reconstruction were met with fierce white resistance throughout the South, including unthinkable violence against the formerly enslaved, wide-scale voter suppression, electoral fraud and even, in some extreme cases, the overthrow of democratically elected biracial governments. Faced with this unrest, the federal government decided that black people were the cause of the problem and that for unity’s sake, it would leave the white South to its own devices. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes, in order to secure a compromise with Southern Democrats that would grant him the presidency in a contested election, agreed to pull federal troops from the South. With the troops gone, white Southerners quickly went about eradicating the gains of Reconstruction. The systemic white suppression of black life was so severe that this period between the 1880s and the 1920 and ’30s became known as the Great Nadir, or the second slavery. Democracy would not return to the South for nearly a century.

Despite the guarantees of equality in the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court’s landmark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 declared that the racial segregation of black Americans was constitutional. With the blessing of the nation’s highest court and no federal will to vindicate black rights, starting in the late 1800s, Southern states passed a series of laws and codes meant to make slavery’s racial caste system permanent by denying black people political power, social equality and basic dignity. They passed literacy tests to keep black people from voting and created all-white primaries for elections. Black people were prohibited from serving on juries or testifying in court against a white person. South Carolina prohibited white and black textile workers from using the same doors. Oklahoma forced phone companies to segregate phone booths. Baltimore passed an ordinance outlawing black people from moving onto a block more than half white and white people from moving onto a block more than half black. Georgia made it illegal for black and white people to be buried next to one another in the same cemetery.

In the North, white politicians implemented policies that segregated black people into slum neighborhoods and into inferior all-black schools, operated whites-only public pools and held white and “colored” days at the country fair, and white businesses regularly denied black people service, placing “Whites Only” signs in their windows. States like California joined Southern states in barring black people from marrying white people, while local school boards in Illinois and New Jersey mandated segregated schools for black and white children.

For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle. This nation’s white founders set up a decidedly undemocratic Constitution that excluded women, Native Americans and black people, and did not provide the vote or equality for most Americans. But the laws born out of black resistance guarantee the franchise for all and ban discrimination based not just on race but on gender, nationality, religion and ability. It was the civil rights movement that led to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which upended the racist immigration quota system intended to keep this country white. Because of black Americans, black and brown immigrants from across the globe are able to come to the United States and live in a country in which legal discrimination is no longer allowed. It is a truly American irony that some Asian-Americans, among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil rights struggle, are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.

BY Nikole Hannah-Jones For the complete 1619 set of articles go to: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.htm


Why Teach Reconsltruction

By Adam Sanchez 
October 29, 2017
Source: Zinn Education Project 

Every day seems to bring new horrors as the U.S. president’s racist rhetoric and policies have provided an increasingly encouraging environment for attacks on Black people and other communities of color. The acquittal of yet another police officer accused of murdering a Black man in St. Louis, the raging battle across the country over whether symbols of slavery should be removed from public spaces, and the formation of a “Commission on Election Integrity” to further suppress voting by people of color are just a few of the recent reminders that racism is as American as apple pie. In moments like these, it’s worth remembering a time in U.S. history when Black lives mattered. Reconstruction, the era immediately following the Civil War and emancipation, is full of stories that help us see the possibility of a future defined by racial equity. Though often overlooked in classrooms across the country, Reconstruction was a period where the impossible suddenly became possible.

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For example, shortly after hearing in 1865 that she and others on her Florida plantation were no longer enslaved, Frances told a friend what she thought their future might look like: “This time next year all the white folks will be at work in the fields, and the plantations and the houses, and everything in them will be turned over to us to do with as we please.” While her fantasy didn’t become a reality, something remarkable did. Without saying anything to their former owner, on New Year’s Day, 1866, every freed slave on the plantation left. The ability of newly freed people to imagine their former owners serving them, or to walk off a plantation en masse in a society that had heavily policed Black movement, reveals the possibilities of a period where something that had only a few years prior seemed unthinkable was now a fact of life. Because, as historian David Roediger writes in his book Seizing Freedom, “If anything seemed impossible in the 1850s political universe, it was the immediate, unplanned, and uncompensated emancipation of four million slaves.” The first African American senator and representatives. When this once seemingly impossible fate became a reality, it democratized and revolutionized U.S. society. It was a moment in which people who had been enslaved became congressmen. It was a moment where a Black-majority legislature in South Carolina could tax the rich to pay for public schools. It was a moment that spawned the first experiments in Black self-determination in the Georgia Sea Islands, where 400 freedmen and women divided up land, planted crops, started schools, and created a democratic system with their own constitution, congress, supreme court, and armed militia. It was a moment where millions of Blacks and poor whites organized together across the South in the Union Leagues, engaging in strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and educational campaigns. And it was a moment where other social movements — in particular, the labor movement and the feminist movement — drew strength from the inspiring actions of African Americans to secure and define their own freedom. In sum, the Reconstruction era was a moment when Black lives, Black actions, and Black ideas mattered. Yet the possibilities and achievements of this era are too often overshadowed by the violent white supremacist backlash. Too often the story of this grand experiment in interracial democracy is skipped or rushed through in classrooms across the country. This reflects the textbook treatment of the era. For example, in History Alive! The United States’ chapter on Reconstruction, the only time the textbook explicitly discusses the monumental accomplishments of Black Americans is in one paragraph titled “African Americans in Office.” Yet there are two paragraphs devoted to “White Terrorism” and five pages — nearly half the entire chapter — discussing Reconstruction’s demise. Although it is crucial to teach the counter-revolution that led to the establishment of Jim Crow, it’s also important that teachers don’t make the backlash the only story — once again putting whites at the center of U.S. history. To ignore or minimize the successes of Reconstruction reinforces the narrative of slow American racial progress — a historical myth in which our country gradually evolved from slavery to Jim Crow to a post-racial society. This is a fable that ignores the actions of millions of people who fought to end systems of white supremacy and prevent new ones from taking hold. The story of Reconstruction, told in nearly every major textbook, highlights the ideas and actions of those at the top — the debates between the president and Congress. For example, the popular textbook The American Journeyspends about 15 of the 21 pages it devotes to Reconstruction explaining the actions of Congress and the president. The book dedicates most of the remaining pages to white resistance to Reconstruction in the South. The message communicated through textbooks like The American Journey is clear: It’s the actions of those at the top that matter most. Yet as Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, wrote: An education that focuses on elites, ignores an important part of the historical record. . . . As a result of omitting, or downplaying, the importance of social movements of the people in our history . . . a fundamental principle of democracy is undermined: the principle that it is the citizenry, rather than the government, that is the ultimate source of power and the locomotive that pulls the train of government in the direction of equality and justice. The Reconstruction era is precisely one where the government was pulled “in the direction of equality and justice” by the actions of citizens — many of whom had only recently won that designation. This is why last January the Zinn Education Project published our Reconstruction era lesson “Reconstructing the South.” While the textbooks emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, this role play asks students to imagine themselves as people who were formerly enslaved and to wrestle with a number of issues about what they needed to ensure genuine freedom. Together, students discuss who should own the plantation land — and what that land would be used for; the fate of Confederate leaders; voting rights; self-defense; and conditions placed on the former Confederate states prior to being allowed to return to the union. By having students confront the questions that shaped the Reconstruction era from the perspective of freedmen and women, the role play mirrors the sense of power and historical possibility of the era. Today — in a moment where activists are struggling to make Black lives matter — every student should probe the relevance of Reconstruction. If anything, the Reconstruction period teaches us that when it comes to justice and equality, what may seem impossible is indeed possible — but depends on us, not simply the president or Congress. That’s why, as the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment nears, the Zinn Education Project has launched our “Teach Reconstruction” campaign. Over the course of this school year we plan to provide lessons, resources, and workshops for teachers seeking to bring to life in their classrooms this crucial historical turning point. It’s time to make Reconstruction an essential part of the U.S. history curriculum. Adam Sanchez (asanchez@zinnedproject.org) teaches at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City. He is an editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and the Zinn Education Project organizer and curriculum writer. Buy A Ticket BUY A TICKET FACEBOOK For More Information: themomentwasnow@gmail.com, 202-297-0198.