In honor of Black History Month, Yale Alumni Academy brings you a series of virtual tours and Academy Conversations on: African American Civil Rights from Reconstruction to Right Now. In this first installment, explore the history of African Americans in Yale and throughout the country during the years surrounding and including Reconstruction. 

Reconstruction is one of the most pivotal and yet least understood periods in American history. It produced three constitutional amendments, unearthed dramatic interpretive challenges in our legislatures and generated ripples in our society still being felt to this day. Following the Civil War, approximately 2,000 African Americans held public office in local, state and federal legislatures. By the end of the era, that progress would be completely undone, setting the stage for the 20th century African American Civil Rights Movement.

Frederick Douglass Collection at the Beinecke Library

The Walter Evans Collection of Frederick Douglass and Douglass Family Papers, described as “the most extraordinary private collection of Douglass manuscript material in the world” by David Blight, Sterling Professor of History, of African American Studies, and of American Studies at Yale. The Beinecke Library presents this discussion about processing and digitizing this major new collection.

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Virtual Exhibits

Civil Rights March

The ideal of freedom is an innovative notion that can be found at the heart of America's founding principles. This ideal is embodied in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution. But freedom -- especially for African Americans -- has been elusive, fought for through social movements and struggle.

Explore at The Henry Ford

Lewis Hayden

From the American Revolution through the end of Reconstruction, black Bostonians pushed to expand the boundaries of freedom and citizenship in Boston, Massachusetts and the United States. Meet Boston's black community leaders, abolitionists, and activists and explore the ways in which they strategically used the power of public memory in their pursuit of freedom.

Explore at the Museum of African American History Boston & Nantucket

Lectures: Professor David Blight on The History of Reconstruction

David Blight Lectures

Professor Blight continues his discussion of the political history of Reconstruction. The central figure in the early phase of Reconstruction was President Andrew Johnson. Under Johnson’s stewardship, southern whites held constitutional conventions throughout 1865, drafting new constitutions that outlawed slavery but changed little else.

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David Blight Lectures

This lecture opens with a discussion of the myriad moments at which historians have declared an “end” to Reconstruction, before shifting to the myth and reality of “Carpetbag rule” in the Reconstruction South. Popularized by Lost Cause apologists and biased historians, this myth suggests that the southern governments of the Reconstruction era were dominated by unscrupulous and criminal Yankees who relied on the ignorant black vote to rob and despoil the innocent South. 

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David Blight Lectures

If you'd prefer to listen to Professor David Blight's course on the History of Reconstruction on Apple Podcasts rather than watching the videos, this link will take you to the audio-only course. This program explores the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War, from the 1840s to 1877. The primary goal of the course is to understand the multiple meanings of a transforming event in American history. Four broad themes are closely examined: the crisis of union and disunion in an expanding republic; slavery, race, and emancipation as a national problem, personal experience, and social process; the experience of modern, total war for individuals and society; and the political and social challenges of Reconstruction.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Information Links

Compromise of 1877
  • Yale Alumni Magazine

The Secret Compromise of 1877

In the 1876 presidential election, Samuel J. Tilden, Yale class of 1837, ’75LLD won the popular vote but lost the electoral college by one vote. He and his congressional contemporaries contested the election leading to a compromise that ended Reconstruction, ushered in Jim Crow and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later.  

Yale's First African American Students

James Pennington

About 175 years have passed since a fugitive slave named James Pennington became the first African American to study at Yale. The university did not permit Pennington, a blacksmith by trade who had settled in New Haven, to matriculate or earn a degree. But he was allowed to audit classes at the Divinity School from 1834 to 1839, and his studies enabled him to be ordained.

Read in Yale Alumni Magazine

Edward Alexander Bouchet

When Edward Alexander Bouchet was born on September 15, 1852, in New Haven, there was little likelihood of him one day attending nearby Yale University (known at the time as Yale College). Though there were no policy statements excluding African Americans, and those in charge likely denied the existence of any “unwritten” policy to that effect, no known black student had ever attended Yale.

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Image: Bouchet's Graduating Class

Richard Henry Green

Recent news about the auction—and acquisition by Yale Manuscripts and Archives—of a collection of the papers of Richard Henry Green, Class of 1857, has led to the discovery of a lost milestone in Yale history. For nearly 150 years, his racial identity had been overlooked.

Read in Yale Alumni Magazine
Read part 2

Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed

A young Black man with the grades and the desire to attend the Yale School of Medicine in the 1800s faced seemingly insurmountable odds, but the power of relationships is what made it possible for Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed to beat those odds, said Yale professor emeritus Curtis Patton, recounting Creed’s path to Yale in a recent talk at the Yale University School of Nursing.

Read in Yale News

Virtual Tours: Reconstruction Era National Historic Network

Frederick Douglass Historic Site

Frederick Douglass spent his life fighting for justice and equality. Born into slavery in 1818, he escaped as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement. People everywhere still find inspiration today in his tireless struggle, brilliant words, and inclusive vision of humanity. Douglass's legacy is preserved here at Cedar Hill, where he lived his last 17 years.

Explore now

Tuskegee Institute

In 1881, Booker T. Washington arrived in Alabama and started building Tuskegee Institute both in reputation and literally brick by brick.  He recruited the best and the brightest to come and teach here including George Washington Carver who arrived in 1896.  Carver’s innovations in agriculture, especially with peanuts, expanded Tuskegee’s standing throughout the country. 

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Carver Museum

George Washington Carver rose from slavery to become a renowned educator, scientist, artist, and humanitarian. An innovator and idealist, he had a remarkable understanding of the natural world. Carver devoted his life to research and finding practical alternatives to improving agriculture and the economic condition of African-Americans in the South.

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Maggie L. Walker

This exhibit explores the life and legacy of Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934), civil rights activist and trailblazing entrepreneur. The beloved African American community leader devoted her life to defeating racism, sexism, and economic oppression.  Mrs. Walker chartered a bank, a newspaper, and a store 17 years before American women had the right to vote, and fostered black entrepreneurialism when Jim Crow laws threatened African American progress.

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Robert Smalls

Former slave Robert Smalls (1839-1915) is one of the most significant figures of Reconstruction. In 1862, motivated to free himself, his family and his crew, he commandeered a Confederate transport ship and sailed it into Union-controlled waters. His tremendous courage and capabilities persuaded President Abraham Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to join the Union army. In this virtual tour, meet his great-great-grandson, Michael Moore, and hear his ancestors' story first-hand while visiting significant sites in Smalls' history.

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Freedman Village

Reconstruction was a process that took place in communities throughout the nation. Many units of the national park system, as well as sites managed by state, local, and private entities preserve locations and stories that tell the story of this crucial transition from slavery to freedom in the aftermath of Civil War.

Explore now

Information Links

William Lanson
  • Yale News

City unveils statue of William Lanson, Pre-Civil War era Black engineer and activist

Elm City dedicated a new statue on Farmington Canal to William Lanson –– a prominent 19th century Black engineer, entrepreneur and civil rights activist from New Haven. On Saturday morning, city leaders and community members gathered at the Farmington Canal Trail to unveil a 7-foot bronze statue commemorating the life and legacy of Lanson. Oakland-based sculptor Dana King created the statue as part of an effort — coordinated by the New Haven City Plan Department and Amistad Committee, a Connecticut based non-profit that educates the public about African American history — to celebrate oft-overlooked accomplishments by the city’s Black residents.

Speeches & Readings

Richard Harvey Cain

in 1874, South Carolina Representative Richard Harvey Cain advocated for a Civil Rights Bill that would guarantee equal rights, end segregated public schools and outlaw public discrimination. Speaking on the U.S. Congress floor, he faced racial antagonism from democratic colleagues and earned the admiration of republican contemporaries as he argued with humor, eloquence, and an unflappable disposition. 

Read this speech

About Richard Harvey Cain