The words “tragic” and “tragedy” have long been linked to the Reconstruction era in the United States, but the reason for the association has shifted over time. In the first 50 years after the period ended, those words were most often used to lament post-Civil War attempts to change the racial balance of power in the defeated South. According to the zero-sum game white supremacists were playing, granting black citizenship—which required ending slavery, preventing discrimination based on race, and giving black males the right to vote and govern in Southern states—stripped white people of what they believed to be their God-given right to rule over black people. A whole school of literature and history sprang up to carry the message far and wide: Terrible, terrible things had been done to the good and innocent white people of the South during Reconstruction.
The most well-known purveyor of this notion was D.W. Griffith, whose film, Birth of a Nation, depicted illiterate, uncouth, and lecherous-for-white-women black men who had supposedly taken the reins of power in Southern states during Reconstruction. The film portrayed black legislators as men with their bare feet up on their desks during sessions, eating chicken and watermelon while taking the occasional swig of alcohol. These caricatures of black legislators told the story: Reconstruction was a folly; black people were unfit for American citizenship. And millions of people took the message of Griffith’s grotesque masterpiece to heart.
Griffith’s contemporaries in American history departments echoed his sentiments, though they generally cloaked their contempt for black people; substituting faux scholarly detachment for the director’s cinematic pyrotechnics on the race question. In a blatant use of the discipline of history for reactionary ends, William A. Dunning of Columbia University created a school of historiography that seconded the notion that Reconstruction was a grievous error. Dunning and his protégés weren’t alone. In an era where scientific racism and hostility to blacks flourished openly, other historians, literary figures, and social commentators felt free to question blacks’ fitness for citizenship.