A Contested History


Throughout most of the 20th century, US history books, films, and other works of popular culture told a story of Reconstruction which today's historians consider obsolete and incorrect and which was used to justify segregation. Many Americans still hold misconceptions about the Reconstruction era to this day. Centered on A Contested History, the Introduction to Facing History's video series about the Reconstruction, and enhanced with readings and activities, this lesson will help to illuminate how our experience of the past affects our choices and beliefs in the present. By watching the video and analyzing historical documents, students will learn about the misrepresentations of the history of Reconstruction. Students will also discuss and reflect on how the way a society understands its history can shape individuals’ beliefs about the present and can affect political, economic, and social choices.

This lesson is part of Facing History and Ourselves’ work on the Reconstruction era, and part of a series of video-based web lessons. Use this lesson towards the end of your Reconstruction unit to engage students in conversations about the implications of how a history is remembered.



  1. Reflect and Discuss

    The video A Contested History introduces students to the way the Reconstruction era has been remembered throughout the past 150 years. The battle over the memory of Reconstruction has in many ways mirrored the political, social, and economic struggles of each subsequent era of American history. Therefore, before showing the video, students should think about how they perceive the connection between the study of history and the present moment.

    Ask students to write a short reflection in response to the following questions:

    • Why is history important?
    • How does our experience and memory of the past affect our choices and beliefs in the present?

    After students have spent a few minutes recording their thoughts, use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to help them discuss their ideas about these questions with each other.

  2. Define

    The video A Contested History discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. Most students will not be familiar with this term. Therefore, before viewing the video, it is helpful to simply share its definition:

    historiography — the way that historians have remembered, written about, interpreted, and taught specific historical eras and events through the generations.  When one studies the historiography of a particular era, one especially focuses on the way that the memories and interpretations of that era have changed.

    Discuss with the class what might cause historians to change how they remember and interpret an era or event from the past. It may be useful to point out that the narratives that historians create represent their interpretations of available evidence about a time in history and their judgments about which pieces of available evidence are more important than others.

  3. Watch

    Show the video A Contested History. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note taking:

    • Why is the title of this video “A Contested History”?
    • What, according to Eric Foner, do historians do?
    • How do scholars view the Reconstruction era today? What is the story of Reconstruction that they tell? What details about this story stand out to you?
    • What is the “Dunning School” of Reconstruction history? How does that story of Reconstruction differ from what historians say today? Who were the heroes of the story told by the Dunning School?
    • What were the consequences of the story of Reconstruction told by Dunning School historians?
    • How did W.E.B. Du Bois understand and approach the history of Reconstruction differently than other historians of his time? Why did he think that work was important to do?
    • When did scholars begin to question the Dunning School version of Reconstruction? When did the contemporary understanding of this history begin to emerge?


    After watching the video, begin a class discussion with the following question:

    • Why does it matter how we understand the history of Reconstruction?
  4. Read and Analyze

    Build on the discussion of the video by analyzing the document W.E.B. Du Bois Reflects on the Purpose of History (Handout 15.4 from The Reconstruction Era).

    The Save the Last Word For Me teaching strategy can provide simple structure for students to read, reflect, and analyze the document in small groups.

    Finally, discuss the following questions:

    • What does Du Bois believe is the purpose of learning history? Do you agree?
    • How do biases and prejudice influence how we interpret the past?
    • How does our understanding of the past influence our choices in the present?

    Race in US History

    W. E. B. Du Bois Reflects on the Purpose of History

    W. E. B. Du Bois questions the way that Reconstruction was studied and taught in an excerpt from his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America.

    Add or Edit Playlist

    NOTE: The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy includes a Close Reading activity (p 274) that guides the class through a deeper, more detailed examination of the Du Bois text.

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Looking for more lessons and primary source documents to teach the Reconstruction era? Get our complete unit on this important history, available in print, ebook, and free PDF.

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