The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy


These materials accompany Ancestry’s extensive collection on the period of Reconstruction, and America’s history of enslavement.

In the wake of the Civil War, Americans were faced with the challenge of rebuilding a society that had been divided by slavery and the political upheaval of war. The study of this period in American history is essential to the understanding of citizenship and democracy in the United States today.

These resources introduce a rigorous study of the Reconstruction era into American history classrooms and includes interviews with scholars of the Reconstruction era who provide insight into this complex history and address questions of freedom, justice, equality, and citizenship that are at the heart of Reconstruction.

We also recommend resources that help educators and students explore the notion of race — a complex and evolving idea that underlies much of this history. Additionally, we offer a selection of professional learning resources that can help teachers address these topics with the thoughtful and sensitive approach they demand.

Classroom Resources provided by Facing History and Ourselves

Lessons and Videos

The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy: Video-based Unit

7 lessons exploring the history of the Reconstruction era using engaging videos that feature scholars and primary sources.


Race: The Power of an Illusion

This 3-part documentary film explores the history of the idea of race and its to the development of slavery in the Americas.


Race is Not Biology

Philosopher Anthony Appiah discusses modern and historical concepts of race.


The Science of Race - Holocaust and Human Behavior

Read about the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists who tried to prove that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races.


Savannah Freedpeople Express their Aspirations for Freedom

Read an excerpt from the transcript of the Savannah Colloquy, a meeting between Union officials and Savannah's Black community in January 1865.

Professional Learning for Educators provided by Facing History and Ourselves


Identity, Race, and the Classroom

This 2-part webinar explores a framework for having rigorous, nuanced, and identity-safe conversations about race. Participants leave with a greater sense of agency and efficacy around discussing race in the classroom. Requires free registration.


A New Approach to Teaching the Reconstruction Era

This webinar introduces a new approach to teaching students about the Reconstruction Era and helps them connect this history to their own lives and the choices they make today.

Classroom Video

Defining Freedom: Facilitating a Conversation About the Reconstruction Era

In this classroom video, a high school history teacher leads a classroom discussion that explores the meaning of freedom to formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction.

Ancestry Resources

  • U.S., Federal Census Records. Taken every 10 years, the U.S. federal census determines representation in Congress and fair taxation.
  • U.S., Select Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880. These special schedules, which are available for may states from 1850-1880, give you a peek into the financial affairs of your family from decade to decade.
  • U.S., Southern Claims Commission (Master Index, Allowed, Disallowed/Barred) Search the index first to determine whether the claim was allowed (A) or disallowed (D)/barred(B) and then search the appropriate database for the actual claims, which often included amazing personal details and stories.
  • U.S., Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Records, 1846-1867. After the Civil War, formally enslaved couples sought to have their marriages recorded legally.
  • U.S., Freedman's Bank Records, 1865-1874. The year 1865 found many African Americans with a need for an institution where they could save their money. The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company (often referred to as the Freedman's Bank) was incorporated 150 years ago on March 3, 1865 to meet that need. Unfortunately, mismanagement and fraud led to the failure of that institution in 1874, wiping our the savings of many African Americans. While some were eventually able to recover about two-thirds of their savings, many never got any of their money back.
  • U.S., Interviews with Formerly Enslaved People, 1936-1938. The Federal Writers' Project was part of the New Deal, and employed writers to interview formerly enslaved people about their experiences during slavery.
  • U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865. These are compiled military service records for United States Colored Troops that volunteered to serve with the Union in the American Civil War, beginning with their formation in 1863.
  • Reconstruction. Historical newspaper articles from the Reconstruction era.
  • Civil War Era. Historical newspaper articles written during and shortly after the Civil War.

Ancestry Exercises