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Du Bois thought that certain historians were maintaining the "southern white fairytale" instead of accurately chronicling the events and key figures of Reconstruction.In the 1960s and through the next decades, a new generation of historians began to re-evaluate Du Bois' work, as well as works of the early 20th century by African-American historians Alrutheus A. They developed new research and came to conclusions that revised the historiography of Reconstruction.Du Bois lists a number of books and writers that he believed misrepresented the Reconstruction period.
It marked a significant break with the standard academic view of Reconstruction at the time, the Dunning School, which contended that the period was a failure and downplayed the contributions of African Americans.
He wrote a more extensive essay on the topic entitled "Reconstruction and Its Benefits", which was first delivered to the American Historical Association in December 1909 in New York City.
After three short chapters profiling the black worker, the white worker, and the planter, Du Bois argues in the fourth chapter that the decision gradually taken by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working during the war was an example of a potential general strike force of four million slaves the Southern elite had not reckoned with.
The institution of slavery simply had to soften: "In a certain sense, after the first few months everybody knew that slavery was done with; that no matter who won, the condition of the slave could never be the same after this disaster of war." Du Bois' research shows that the post-emancipation South did not degenerate into economic or political chaos.
This work emphasized black people's agency in their search for freedom and the era's radical policy changes that began to provide for general welfare, rather than the interests of the wealthy planter class.
Scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s tempered some of these claims by highlighting continuities in the political goals of white politicians before and during Reconstruction.Du Bois' extensive use of data and primary source material on the postwar political economy of the former Confederate States is notable, as is the literary style of this 750-page essay.He notes major achievements, such as establishing public education in the South for the first time, the founding of charitable institutions to care for all citizens, the extension of the vote to the landless whites, and investment in public infrastructure.Albert Bushnell Hart, one of his former professors at Harvard University, sent him money to attend the conference.William Archibald Dunning, leader of what was called the Dunning School that developed at Columbia University, heard Du Bois' presentation and praised his paper, according to Du Bois.These groups often used terror to repress black organization and suffrage, frightened by the immense power that 4 million voters would have on the shape of the future.He documents the creation of public health departments to promote public health and sanitation, and to combat the spread of epidemics during the Reconstruction period.In the section on the post-Civil War south, Du Bois argues that white workers gained a "psychological wage" from racism, which prevented a coalition between white and black workers.He used this term to distinguish it from a material wage."It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools.The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule." Some critics rejected Du Bois' critique of other historians writing about the freedmen's role during Reconstruction.