Presently we are in the midst of learning about the period of Reconstruction. We have immersed ourselves in lots of primary resources, challenging and sometimes obscure, at least to 8th graders–texts which reflect sophisticated vocabulary, complicated syntax, lots of double negatives.
This last summer I attended a Gilder Lehrman Summer Institute at Columbia University in New York, led by Eric Foner, the primary historian who literally changed the way we understand Reconstruction today. As part of the seminar, each participant needed to come up with a lesson plan. I based my summer work on a print I discovered, Bateman’s National Picture (pictured above).
This print is a vast and nearly overwhelming allegorical vision of an ideal world where blacks and whites are benignly integrated in a political and cultural utopia. In fact, there is a very literal and metaphorical “reconstructing” of society taking place. With careful work at observing, one is able to unpack the rich visual imagery to better understand the Radical Republican vision/ agenda in Congress in 1867. There are specific visual, textual, and symbolic references to the Freedmen’s Bureau, Public Education, Universal suffrage (including women!), the relationship between the Federal and State governments, the role of government itself, Native Americans, the role of the military, Labor, the West, black and white relationships, religion, gender, marriage, America’s historical past in relation to its present and future, patriotic values, and ideas about what constitutes economic prosperity.
Horatio Bateman is the artist, though J.L.Giles is listed as the creator on the Library of Congress site. Giles was, in fact, the engraver/ lithographer. Bateman was a New York artist (according to Mark Elliott in Color-blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v Ferguson). Three or four years after producing this image, Bateman wrote Biographies of 250 Distinguished National Men (1870/71), many of whom, I believe, are the floating heads in the sky.
The reason I am even writing about this exercise today (and it will continue tomorrow) is that the students were totally into it. I mean, really into it. There were rolled eyes and yawns and a few audible moans as we looked at the texts mentioned at the beginning of this post. But as the students worked on this project, there was almost a soft hum in the room, lots of pointing at their images, engaged examination.
I had divided the students into pairs to work together. They each were to explore the image but needed to confer and create their own individual list of observations. I had them decide how to divide the illustration into regions or geographies so they could more easily identify where a group of observations were located. They were actually very enthusiastic and found themselves making very compelling connections. They even discovered a few details I had never noticed before. They had lots of questions and I found myself bouncing around the room trying to get to them all. There was a real dynamic of synergy throughout.
There is not a great deal of accessible information about this print. It is referred to in Mark Elliot’s book mentioned above and Bateman himself published a key to the images in the picture. This pamphlet I have yet to find. There is a copy at Brown University, but I still have to figure out how to get access to it. When I shared all this with the kids, it was like we were working together to figure this puzzle out. In fact, I said that we might, as a class, put together an article for a history magazine based on our experience with this print and another we will be comparing with it and published in the same year, Thomas Nast’s “?Slavery is Dead?”, a dystopian vision of Reconstruction.
They were actually thinking today, talking about the images they were discovering. Trying to work out the meaning of the symbols (and there are many). And they were on their own, without guiding questions, free to explore and investigate. When it was clear we would need more time, one student reminded me he wouldn’t be in class tomorrow because of a field trip. He angrily pounded his fist on the desk. I told him he could work on the image at home. He at first felt foolish because of course he could work on the image at home, but this anger was soon overpowered with delight. Delight at doing academic work at home? Not usual for GT.
I was feeling pretty pleased with the day. Especially when I happened to look at the board in the front of the room where I had listed the day’s activities. Someone had erased the “e” from Bateman’s name. Well, Bat man’s National Picture works for me. Just like it did for them today (and hopefully again tomorrow).