The Atlantic

Why Is America Afraid of Black History?

No one should fear a history that asks a country to live up to its highest ideals.
Source: Photo-illustration by Khaleelah I. L. Harris. Sources: The Freedmen’s Bureau Archives; Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Collection / Florida State Archives; University of Virginia Library Online Exhibits.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.

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In all my years doing research at the National Archives, I had never cried. That day in fall 2012, I had simply planned to examine documentary material that might help determine how the yet-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture would explore and present the complicated history of American slavery and freedom.

As I read through the papers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it’s usually called—I decided to see if I could find records from Wake County, North Carolina, where I knew some of my own enslaved ancestors had lived. I had few expectations because I knew so little about my family’s history. From a surviving wedding certificate for my paternal great-grandparents, I’d gotten the name of my earliest-known family member, an enslaved woman named Candis Bunch, my great-great-grandmother. But scrolling through rolls of microfilmed documents from the Raleigh office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, I realized the chances were remote that I would find my ancestor.

But when I turned my attention to a series of labor contracts—designed to give the newly freed some legal protections as they negotiated working relationships with their former enslavers—I found a single page documenting a contract between Fabius H. Perry, who owned the plantation next to the one where my ancestors had been enslaved, and Candis Bunch. That page not only filled a void in my knowledge of my family’s history, but also enriched my understanding of myself.

I was amazed at what a single piece of paper could reveal. For two days of farm work in 1866, Candis received $1,

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