This exhibition focuses on the period following the Civil War—through an African American lens. The United States emerged from the Civil War fundamentally changed. For the first time, slavery did not legally exist within its borders. What this meant was the question before the nation. Would four million newly freed people be truly free to determine their own lives? Would the nation’s founding promises of liberty, equality, and justice be realized for all people, regardless of race? These were the questions of Reconstruction. They remain the challenges of today.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass 1876
Frederick Douglass, speech at Republican National Convention, 1876
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 1876
The question now is, Do you mean to make good to us the promises in your constitution?

Gallery Talk with the Exhibition Team

Exhibition Storylines

00:00 "Make Good the Promises" introduction with Spencer Crew

01:20 "1865: America without Slavery" with Spencer Crew

02:21 "The Freedmen's Bureau" with Katy Kendrick

03:54 "Visions of Freedom: Family, Land and Labor, Community" with Candra Flanagan

05:51 "Visions of Freedom: Democracy" with Katy Kendrick

08:42 "Legacies of Reconstruction" with Paul Gardullo

11:09 "Legacies of Reconstruction" continued with Spencer Crew

12:01 "Reflection Space" with Candra Flanagan

Family on plantation near Savannah, Georgia, late 1800s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Exhibition Guide

Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, was a revolutionary political, social and economic movement that reshaped the nation in profound and lasting ways. It manifested the aspirations and determinations of African Americans, including four million newly freed people, seeking to define themselves as free and equal citizens. Use this Exhibition Guide as a companion for your museum visit and as a keepsake with reflective activities to encourage further learning.