Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies

September 24, 2021 – August 21, 2022

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

National Museum of African American History and Culture
1400 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Concourse Level, Bank of America Special Exhibitions Gallery

See on Map Floor Plan

Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies is a 4,300-square-foot exhibition exploring the Reconstruction era through an African American lens. It features more than 175 objects, 300 images, and 14 media programs. The exhibition explores the deep divisions and clashing visions about how to rebuild the nation after slavery. It connects that era to today’s efforts to make good on the promises of the Constitution.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, more than 4 million newly freed African Americans struggled to define themselves as equal citizens—to own land, to vote, to work for fair wages, build safe communities, educate themselves, and to rebuild families torn apart by slavery. Their aim during this period of Reconstruction was to live in a nation that kept the promises laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Black men were granted voting rights and were elected to political offices including seats in the U.S. Congress, Black families acquired land and started farms, and communities built churches and schools. But not everyone celebrated the end of slavery. Many responded with violence ranging from unlawful incarceration and voter intimidation to lynching and mass shootings.

Historians regard the Reconstruction era, from 1865 to 1877, as one of the least-understood periods in American history and a period filled with contradictions. Despite the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which outlawed slavery, granted citizenship, and gave Black men the right to vote, racially motivated violence was prevalent and unfair labor practices created the system of sharecropping.

In March of 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. This federal agency operated in 15 states throughout the South to help the newly freed acquire land, reunite with their families, and establish schools, including a number of historically Black colleges and universities including Fisk, Howard, Morehouse, and Spelman. But the Freedmen’s Bureau was abolished in less than seven years and the Freedmen’s Bank allowed to fail. Gains African Americans made during Reconstruction were rolled back after white supremacists regained control of southern state governments through voter suppression and intimidation.

The exhibition is presented with a companion book, Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies.