You may have learned in high school that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was an inevitable failure. In her latest book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, historian Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that, far from dying a natural death, Reconstruction was destroyed in a not-so-secret war waged against Black citizens.
Williams argues that the end of Reconstruction was the explicit goal of Confederates who refused to accept their military defeat. Abetted by war-weary white Northerners who wanted to put the Civil War behind them, a president who had no interest in securing civil rights for Black people and authorities who didn’t care to enforce the law, armed militias and Klansmen engaged in a concerted battle to destroy Black citizens who voted, ran for office or merely owned and farmed their own land. These white aggressors invaded homes and subjected Black Americans to a host of crimes, from arson and torture to rape and murder. The destruction of property alone amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency, while the damage to victims, their families and their communities remains incalculable.
Williams, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, lays out her case with forensic precision. She writes with authority about the political and social circumstances that enabled these attacks, as well as the impact that these acts of terror had on Black people’s health and financial security, for both the injured parties and the generations following them. But her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s.
These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them. Previously enslaved people recounted the horrors of these “visits”—the deaths of loved ones, the rapes, the lingering physical and psychic wounds, the loss of hard-earned wealth—with dignity and courage, knowing full well the risks they ran by testifying. Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.