Interracial Democracy


Radical Reconstruction brought about revolutionary changes to the nature of democracy and the structure of American society, especially in the South. Centered on Part Four of Facing History’s video series about Reconstruction, and enhanced with activities and readings, this lesson will help students explore the consequences of Radical Reconstruction. Students will reflect on how the ground-breaking changes that occurred because of the new laws in the late 1860s and early 1870s affected the strength of American democracy.

This lesson is part of Facing History’s work on the Reconstruction era, and part of a series of video-based web lessons. Use this lesson to engage students in a conversation about the period of interracial democracy that occurred during Radical Reconstruction. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lesson 8 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information.



  1. Reflect and Discuss

    The video Interracial Democracy introduces students to the dramatic political and social changes that occurred in the South as a result of Radical Reconstruction. The video focuses specifically on black suffrage. Before showing the video, students should reflect on the revolutionary and unprecedented nature of granting political and civil rights to millions of people who two years prior were enslaved.  

    Ask students to write a short response to the following quotation by historian Eric Foner:

    Never before in history had so large a group of emancipated slaves suddenly achieved political and civil rights.  And the coming of black suffrage in the South in 1867 inspired a sense of millennial possibility second only to emancipation itself.  Former slaves now stood on equal footing with whites, declared a speaker at a mass meeting in Savannah; before them lay “a field, too vast for contemplation.”

    In their responses, students might reflect on what effects they think black suffrage will have on the lives of individual freedpeople, the South, and the nation as a whole. 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. Watch

    Show the video Interracial Democracy. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note taking:

    • What was Radical Reconstruction?
    • What do you think the term "interracial democracy" means? Why do you think historians like Eric Foner have used this term to describe this history?
    • About how many African Americans held political office during Reconstruction? What types of offices did they hold?
    • In what ways did blacks and whites work together in the South during Reconstruction? What obstacles got in the way of such cooperation?
    • What were some of the policies and accomplishments of interracial state governments during Reconstruction? Who benefited from these policies and accomplishments? Who opposed them?

  3. Read and Analyze

    Build on what students learned from the video by having them read and analyze the following documents exploring interracial democracy in the 1860’s and 1870’s:

    Race in US History

    The First South Carolina Legislature After the 1867 Reconstruction Acts

    Examine an image of the 1868 South Carolina legislature, the first state legislature with a black majority.

    Race in US History

    The Honoured Representative of Four Millions of Colored People

    Historian Douglas R. Egerton describes the life and political career of Mississippi politician Blanche K. Bruce, the first African-American to serve a full six-year term in the United States Senate.

    Race in US History

    The Role of Carpetbaggers

    Alexander White, a white congressman from Alabama, describes the role that “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” played in Reconstruction politics.

    Race in US History

    Reconstructing Mississippi

    Learn about the accomplishments of the first interracial legislature in Mississippi from the account of John Roy Lynch, a freedman who served in the state’s House of Representatives.

    Race in US History

    Improving Education in South Carolina

    Samuel J. Lee, elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868, describes improvements to the state education system made during Reconstruction.

    The Gallery Walk teaching strategy can provide a simple structure for students to move around the room, read, and discuss documents from this collection.

    After students have read and discussed several, if not all, of the documents, give them notecards and ask them to write newspaper headlines on the cards that capture how Radical Reconstruction laws and amendments changed the country. Explain that a good headline usually summarizes an idea or event in 12 words or fewer. Alternatively, you might have students compose a tweet (which is 140 characters or fewer).

    Below their headlines or tweets, have students list three pieces of evidence they recorded from the documents they analyzed or from the video they watched that support or explain their headline or tweet.  

    Finally, consider asking students to rethink their headlines from the perspectives of either Radical Republicans or Southern Democrats. How might their headlines be different from each of these points of view?

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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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