Ta-Nehisi Coates brought this article on W.E. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction from the African American Intellectual History Society to my attention via Twitter. I wrote about the current “debate” awhile ago, but Guy Emerson Mount provides a crucial reminder of how universities and political institutions use positions of power to define historical memory around the Civil War over time. Mount writes (emphasis added):
Yet, in 1935, Du Bois found few friends outside of a small circle of black activists, white political dissidents and intellectual radicals. In the field of Reconstruction, he was almost single-handedly facing a brick wall of white supremacist scholarship that had taken hold in nearly every elite history department in America. Yet Du Bois courageously named names and called out the profession for what it was. William A. Dunning, John W. Burgess, and a host of other celebrated scholars working on Reconstruction were lambasted by Du Bois for perpetuating “The Propaganda of History.” The now infamous Dunning School held that slaves were docile, unprepared for freedom, and racially inferior. The mythology of the Lost Cause was in full effect from Columbia to Johns Hopkins University. The North and the South had apparently fought gallantly over just about anything and everything but slavery—emerging in the end as a divinely unified and thoroughly perfected nation. Du Bois fought back.