Harvard historian talks new documentary, Reconstruction

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Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and Emmy Award winning filmmaker, discusses African American life after the Civil War at the Blanton Museum on Mar. 3, 2020. The event was hosted by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Trevathan | Daily Texan Staff

Filmmaker and historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. discussed his new documentary on the Black struggle for rights during Reconstruction on Tuesday with a public affairs professor.

Gates showed part of his new PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” and gave a lecture on its message with Peniel Joseph, a professor of public affairs, to nearly 300 audience members at the Blanton Auditorium.

Gates is the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He won an Emmy Award for his PBS documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” was named one of TIME’s 25 Most Influential Americans in 1997 and has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times and TIME, according to the LBJ School website.

The film focused on the rollback of Reconstruction and how it lasts until this day, Gates said. 

“The problems that emerged during Reconstruction have never been resolved,” Gates said.

 

Gates said Black men were initially heavily involved in politics in the immediate years after the Civil War, but lost many rights within 20 years. 

“Achievements and rights thought permanent can be overturned just like that, and our rights can never be taken for granted,” Gates said. “Slavery didn’t end in 1865, it just evolved. The North won the war, but the South won the narrative.”

Joseph, founding director for the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, said he thinks Gates is the most influential intellectual in terms of the Black experience. Gates said Joseph is his daughter’s godfather, and Joseph said Gates is his mentor. 

“Professor Gates’ work is intimately concerned with the fullness of the Black culture and humanity through not just scholarship, but stories,” Joseph said.

The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy hosted Gates as the third keynote speaker in the William C. Powers Jr. Speaker Series.

“He is a pioneering scholar who has shaped how we view African American and Diaspora Studies,” said Ja’nell Ajani, an American Studies graduate student who assisted in organizing the event. “Joseph has a personal relationship with Gates, and it is an honor to hear them both in conversation here in Austin.” 

Gates said everyone should continue to fight for equality.

“It is often said that history repeats itself,” Gates said. “But that is true only if we let it.”