Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies focuses on the story of Reconstruction—the period following the Civil War—through an African American lens. 

The United States emerged from the Civil War fundamentally changed.

For the first time, slavery did not legally exist within its borders. What this meant was the question before the nation. Would four million newly freed people be truly free to determine their own lives? Would the nation’s founding promises of liberty, equality and justice be realized for all people, regardless of race? 

These were the questions of Reconstruction. They remain the challenges of today.

Black and White photograph of the Shores family homestead

Shores family homestead, Custer County, Nebraska, 1887

History Nebraska
Black and White photo of an African American family in front of slave quarters.

Exhibition Guide

Reconstruction was a revolutionary political, social and economic movement that reshaped the nation in profound and lasting ways. It manifested the aspirations and determinations of African Americans, including four million newly freed people, seeking to define themselves as free and equal citizens. Use this Exhibition Guide as a companion for your museum visit and as a keepsake with reflective activities to encourage further learning. 

Download about Exhibition Guide

Exhibition Storylines

About the Book

Make Good the Promises
Harper Collins

With contributions by leading scholars, and illustrated with 80 images from the exhibition, Make Good the Promises shows how Black Lives Matter, #SayHerName, antiracism, and other current movements for repair find inspiration from the lessons of Reconstruction. 

The publication touches on questions critical then and now: What is the meaning of freedom and equality? What does it mean to be an American? Powerful and eye-opening, it is a reminder that history is far from past; it lives within each of us and shapes our world and who we are.

Preview Essay Preview Audio Essay 

 

Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration of the Celebration of the abolition of slavery in Washington DC, 1866.

Defining Freedom

The 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery throughout the United States. but ending slavery was only a first step towards securing full freedom and citizenship for African Americans.
Read Story about Defining Freedom
Black and white photo of an African American boy near a flag by James Karales, taken March 21, 1965, during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

Reconstructing Citizenship

Securing the Promise of the 14th Amendment
Read Story about Reconstructing Citizenship
Black and white photo of Black women protesting for the right to vote in 1956.

150 Years and Counting

The Struggle to Secure the Promise of the 15th Amendment
Read Story about 150 Years and Counting

Exhibition Objects

Pew from Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, S.C.

On Loan from The Charleston Museum
View the Object about Pew from Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island, S.C.

Ellis Family Bible

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Clara Ellis Payne
View the Object about Ellis Family Bible

Bodice attributed to Louvinia Price, 1860–1874

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane
View the Object about Bodice attributed to Louvinia Price, 1860–1874

Apron Owned by Harriet Tubman

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson
View the Object about Apron Owned by Harriet Tubman

Helmet worn by Bree Newsome on June 27, 2015

On loan from the Bree Newsome Bass Family
View the Object about Helmet worn by Bree Newsome on June 27, 2015

This exhibition is generously supported by
NMAAHC Corporate Leadership Council
The TJX Companies, Inc.
Toyota
with additional support from The Rockefeller Foundation

Share this page