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.

The 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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