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Historian Focuses on Lives of Black Americans During Reconstruction

By Rebecca Lauck Cleary

University of Mississippi

Kidada Williams. Submitted photo

Many Americans learn in school that Reconstruction failed, but few can accurately identify who failed to do what and why. In the annual Gilder-Jordan Lecture in Southern Cultural History, historian and author Kidada E. Williams answers those questions in “The Devil Was Turned Loose: African Americans in the War Against Reconstruction.”

In the Sept. 19 lecture at the University of Mississippi, Williams plans to discuss what Black Southerners did with their freedom, the price white Southerners made them pay for their success and the ways Reconstruction was violently overthrown.      

The 6 p.m. presentation in Nutt Auditorium is free and open to the public.

“Reconstruction looks different when we study it from the perspective of African Americans who seized their freedom during the Civil War and built hope-filled lives in its aftermath,” said Williams, a professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

“I look at African Americans transitioning from slavery to freedom and the war white Southern extremists waged on those who had made the most of Reconstruction’s expansion of freedom and democracy.”

Williams, who studies African American victims of racist violence, researches the misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of Black people’s experiences in that era.

“I draw on African American survivors’ testimonies to offer a revelatory and sometimes minute-by-minute accounting of the white terror raids and Klan strikes that extremists used to overthrow Reconstruction,” she said. “And I deploy scholarship on trauma to consider how the effects of racist violence lingered for generations to come.”

At Wayne State University, she teaches African American History from 1400 to 1865 and The Historian’s Craft, which is the introduction to research methods for undergraduates.

“We are delighted to be hosting Dr. Kidada Williams at the University of Mississippi,” said Katie McKee, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. “Her important and detailed work focuses on the lives of Black Americans during Reconstruction, an era which casts a long shadow into our present moment and onto the formation of citizenship as both a concept and a practical right.”

Williams is the author of “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction” (Bloomsbury, 2023)and “They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I” (NYU Press, 2012)co-editor of #CharlestonSyllabus; and host and co-producer of “Seizing Freedom,” a podcast docudrama that covers the epic story of African Americans’ fight for freedom during the Civil War era. 

The quality of her interviews for historian Ed Ayers’ BackStory with the American History Guys, coupled with her expertise, made her a perfect fit for host of “Seizing Freedom.” In one episode with Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American studies, history and American studies at Yale University, they discuss what it means to tell the history of the Civil War.

Crystal and I both shared our stories of how we came to the war, studied it and some of the resistance we faced,” Williams said. “Many had ignored African Americans in the war, despite how prominent they are in the archival sources. 

“We also discussed the ways experts in African American history brought different questions to the war. I see us as part of a delegation of historians who persisted.”

While at Ole Miss, Williams also will meet with Southern studies, African American studies and history graduate students for a discussion of the joys and challenges of working with diverse public audiences. 

“I’m really looking forward to listeningto what grad students want to know from me and sharing with them some ways I think they might use their training to find impactful and fulfilling work as they – not necessarily their programs, advisers or the traditional historical profession – define it,” she said.

Organized through the university’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Center for Civil War Research and departments of African American Studies and History, the series is made possible through the generosity of the Gilder Foundation Inc. The series honors the late Richard Gilder of New York and his family, as well as Ole Miss alumni Dan and Lou Jordan, of Virginia.


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