Media Resource

Free and Equal: The Promise of Reconstruction in America

Key Figures of Emancipation History
Photo caption

Key figures Harriet Tubman, Robert Smalls, Susie King Taylor, Laura Towne, Charlotte Forten, and Isaiah Brown posed with Brick Baptist Church and the Beaufort Arsenal, two important sites within our story of the Sea Islands.

In 1861, years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the Civil War, communities of formerly enslaved people on the abandoned plantations of the South Carolina Sea Islands engaged in what historians have called the “rehearsal for Reconstruction.”  

Free and Equal: The Promise of Reconstruction in America is an NEH-funded digital humanities project that tells the story of this largely forgotten place and time in history and how the lives and actions of these freedpeople played a critical role in defining freedom and equality for African Americans during and after the Civil War. 

Using a rich collection of primary sources and interpretation by historians, the project explains how circumstances in the Sea Islands of South Carolina made it possible for Black communities to develop under their own leadership during the Civil War. The project tells this history through seven thematic sections, focusing on the broader context of this time period, different aspects of everyday life in these communities, and the lessons and legacies of this experiment. Use the guiding questions below to assist students as they explore those sections on the site.  


Prior to the Civil War, the Sea Islands were known for their plantations that produced valuable Sea Island cotton. During the Civil War, these plantation communities became the site of an incredible experiment.  

  • What happened in the Sea Islands that made it possible for formerly enslaved people to take control of their communities? 

  • What happened after they emancipated themselves?  

  • Who were some of the leaders in these new Black communities? 

  • How did Union leaders respond to events in Port Royal? 

  • Which images from this section best illustrate how life was changed by these events? What details make these images stand out?


Gaining freedom was not a gift, and it didn't happen overnight. Instead, it was a long struggle that was fought for in many ways. 

  • What did newly freed people do once they were emancipated? How did this change their communities? How did it change the nation? 

  • Who were some of the people involved in fighting to protect their freedom? 

  • In addition to joining the war effort, in what other ways did people fight to preserve their freedom?  

Family and Spirituality

Freedom brought new opportunities for Black families to reunite after being separated by enslavement. It also allowed them to exercise their faith in their own ways, without white oversight. 

  • What new technologies helped Black families find each other? 

  • What role did religious institutions play in these communities? 

Education and Politics

Education played an important role in preserving freedom for newly emancipated Americans, in part because it was foundational to getting involved in community politics.  

  • Prior to the Civil War, it was illegal for enslaved people to learn to read or write. Why do you think that was? 

  • How would reading and writing make gaining freedom easier? How did it help them with the war effort? 

  • Who were some of the activists involved in increasing literacy in the Sea Islands? 

  • How were children involved in the efforts to educate their emancipated family members?  

Labor and Land

The end of enslavement meant that freedpeople were able to choose how they worked, earn wages, and spend freely for the first time.  

  • Why was it possible for freedmen to buy land in the Sea Islands? 

  • Purchasing land meant not only the freedom to control one’s physical space but also the ability to act as agents in the agrarian economy. In your own life, how has the ability to control your physical environment made you feel free? 

  • How are wages, banking, and wealth related? How might one be required for the others? 

  • How do you think it felt for emancipated people to be able to own land where their ancestors had been forced to work? Why would that be different than owning land somewhere else? 


Reconstruction came with a number of promises, many of which went unfulfilled. Others were enshrined in the constitution through new amendments.  

  • How did the freedoms that were exercised by the people of the Sea Islands find expression in the new amendments that were passed after the war? 

  • How did different groups respond to these new promises?  

  • How did Reconstruction end? Was it a success or a failure? Why? 

The Legacies of Reconstruction

Questions about how to preserve rights and freedoms for all Americans that began during reconstruction persist today.  

  • Although Reconstruction did not achieve everything it set out to do, there were many important successes that laid the way for future progress. What were some of these successes? 

  • Our collective memory of the Civil War and its meaning has changed over the decades since Reconstruction ended. What are some of the ways that this meaning has evolved, and why is it important to have an accurate understanding of enslavement and the causes of the Civil War? Why would ideas like the “Lost Cause” mythology be damaging? 

Extensions and Related Activities

The Free and Equal project emphasizes the importance of the Sea Islands’ location to the history that occurred there. Invite students to explore the entry for the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park on the NEH-supported Clio website. How does the story of Reconstruction told here compare to the Free and Equal interpretation? You may choose to have students revise this Clio entry or write their own using our lesson plan Place-Based Learning: Creating Clio Entries.  

Students may enjoy exploring contemporary voices discussing the meaning of freedom in the historic newspapers available through the Chronicling America database. Consider using newspapers from Black Presses such as the San Francisco Vindicator  to see conversations about rights and freedom from Black Americans in the decades following the Civil War.  

The Free and Equal project delivers important historical content through an engaging online exhibit format. Invite students to make their own digital exhibits focused on the life of one historical figure from the Free and Equal project using presentation slides or an online platform.