Reconstructing the South: A Role Play

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 17 pages.
This role play engages students in thinking about what freedpeople needed in order to achieve—and sustain—real freedom following the Civil War. It’s followed by a chapter from the book Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution on what would happen to the land in the South after slavery ended.

  • Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876, 19th Century | Themes: African American, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)
A farmer plowing in South Carolina, 1866 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

A sketch by Jas. E. Taylor of farmer plowing in South Carolina, 1866. Image: Library of Congress.

What kind of country is this going to be? This was the urgent question posed in the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War. When students learn about Reconstruction, if they learn about this period at all, too often they learn how the presidents and Congress battled over the answer to this question. Textbooks and curricula emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, but usually not how they acted to define their own freedom.

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”: ownership of land—and what the 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.

Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry Into the Civil War and Reconstruction (Book) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryThe role play’s premise is that the end of the war presented people in our country with a key turning point, that there existed at this moment an opportunity to create a society with much greater equality and justice.

The role play is followed by chapter 11 of Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New Press, 1996) with discussion questions.

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Amy Grant, a middle school social studies teacher in Dexter, Michigan, wrote,

I found the “Reconstructing the South” lesson plan to be a valuable addition to my teaching about this era in our history. The students were engaged in their roles and, later, more engaged than ever before in finding out what choices were actually made the years following the Civil War. As we compared and contrasted solutions they had proposed with what really happened, they were able to better understand the cause-and-effect that led to the need for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and to the racial tension and struggles that continue in the U.S. today. They could see how things might have turned out differently, if only different decisions were made in the past. I think the real power in this lesson, though, is in the impact it will have on the future. Having analyzed how decisions made 150 years ago still impact us today, my students are more likely to be purposeful and thoughtful in their own civic involvement as they move forward toward and through adulthood. Thanks for the great lesson!

Read more comments from teachers across the country about this lesson.

 

Teach Reconstruction Campaign

“Reconstructing the South” is one of the lessons developed as part of our campaign to Teach Reconstruction.

Learn about the campaign and see the list of advisers here.

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