Four years ago, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War kicked off with conferences, public lectures, government proclamations, and even balls and galas. As Reconstruction's anniversary begins, however, there is no such fanfare and few signs of public reckoning, much less celebration.
Reconstruction has long suffered such neglect. The National Park Service, steward of the nation's Civil War battlefields and a leader in interpreting the war for the public, has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period. Now, on the cusp of significant Reconstruction anniversaries, the Park Service is ready to change how Americans remember Reconstruction, to help push the era—in all its complexity—back onto the map of America's collective memory.
By the spring of 1865, many veterans of the decades-long movement to end slavery felt their work was finished. Confederate generals had surrendered, giving up the dream of a nation whose cornerstone was human bondage. And Congress had passed a constitutional amendment that—once ratified—would make slavery illegal throughout the land. Abolitionists had reason to feel satisfied.
At a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May, however, Frederick Douglass urged them to fight on. The Thirteenth Amendment was the beginning, not the end, of the effort to remake the nation. "Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot," he told the crowd. "While the Legislatures of the South retain the right to pass laws making any discrimination between black and white, slavery still lives there."
The end of slavery, Douglass argued, would never be secured if the nation's four million ex-slaves were left to the mercies of their Southern white neighbors. State governments would use racially discriminatory legislation to impoverish and immobilize former slaves, and they would never voluntarily permit black men to vote. The antislavery movement must press forward, lobbying the government to do more to protect and empower black Southerners, lest the moment's potential be lost.
The period known as Reconstruction was defined by the questions of race and power that Douglass identified, questions that flowed logically and continuously out of the Civil War. Those questions reverberate in many political debates today—debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.
For all its significance, however, Reconstruction seems more difficult to remember than to forget. The New York Times' innovative and successful Disunion series is ending, echoing predecessors like Ken Burns's epic documentary, The Civil War, which skipped Reconstruction almost entirely.
But that may be starting to change. After commissioning a handbook on Reconstruction that will soon be available in parks, the National Park Service has begun a yearlong study of sites that could be appropriate for memorializing Reconstruction. We will be participating in that study and assessing how the nation might best commemorate this remarkable period.
There is a great deal to look at. Reconstruction was a nearly unprecedented period of transformation. While most slaveholding societies—with the exception of Haiti—refused to enfranchise ex-slave men upon emancipation, the United States extended the vote to black men, and Southern constituencies soon elected black men to Congress, state legislatures, and crucial local offices including sheriffs and assessors.
This political transformation, pressed forward by the lobbying of Douglass and hundreds of thousands of freedpeople and white Republicans, transformed the South in turn. New state governments created public schools and hospitals, and black people and their white allies founded colleges, churches, and benevolent organizations.
Instead of facing exclusion from legal systems, some black Southerners now ran them. Once treated as property, they could now legally own property, and many struggled heroically to do so. Once prohibited from reading, they now built schools and flooded them with teachers and students. Once blocked from the legal protections of marriage, they now registered their unions and claimed the privileges commonly associated with both marriage and parenthood.
And these grassroots transformations also remade the country. New constitutional amendments refashioned American citizenship and promised new rights. After the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment established national citizenship, protected the federal debt from repudiation, and promised individuals equal protection and due process of law. The Fifteenth Amendment attempted to outlaw racial discrimination in the right to vote. Together, these amendments were a second founding of the nation, a remaking of citizenship and rights so broad as to stand with the constitutional convention itself as a signal moment in the making of America.
At the same time, Reconstruction was also a period of disappointment and disillusionment. For the many white Southerners who had sympathized with and fought for the Confederacy, wartime defeat was compounded by the federal government's policies, which led to loss of mastery over their slaves and loss of political power as black men too were allowed to vote. Many lashed out violently. In bloody campaigns of terror, they prevented African Americans from voting, killed thousands of freedpeople, raped untold numbers of black women, and thus reestablished control. By the end of the century, many—though not all—of Reconstruction’s gains were in retreat as Southern state governments disfranchised black men and legalized the "Jim Crow" order of racial segregation and degradation. The Supreme Court quickly acquiesced in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
Amid the tumult, a search for meaning emerged among writers of all kinds, including northern news reporters dispatched to the South, white Southern memoirists striving to make sense of their commitment to a failed cause, and activists who sought with diminishing success to draw attention to the plight of black communities.
The victors in this war of words and interpretation were those who believed Reconstruction had been a disastrous mistake. Those writers made the villains of Reconstruction almost legendary: foolish or violent black Southerners, corrupt white Northern carpetbaggers, and tyrannical Republican politicians who oversaw an era of unjust, unconstitutional federal intervention.
In the early 20th century, this view found its way into the newly professionalizing discipline of history, especially in graduate programs at Johns Hopkins and Columbia. By the time the groundbreaking film Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, Reconstruction was widely understood as a period of disastrous federal policymaking that led to the oppression and humiliation of white Americans. Among academic historians, wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, the study of Reconstruction was "devastated by passion and belief."
That early but remarkably resilient narrative of Reconstruction was not just a story about history; it was a justification for the Jim Crow order that prevailed in the South until the 1960s. And as Jim Crow crumbled, so, too, did the conventional story about Reconstruction. Among professional historians, a new narrative has taken shape over the last fifty years, pioneered most of all by Columbia's Eric Foner. The output has been prodigious.
Historians have conducted large-scale studies of African American office-holding that dispel the myth of "negro rule" and show how difficult it was for African Americans—even during the heady days of Reconstruction—to get candidates elected to major offices. Against claims that African Americans emerged from slavery unprepared to live independently, historians have unearthed the wealth of institutions and cultural resources that people of African descent developed in slavery and cultivated after emancipation. Scholars have profiled the "carpetbaggers" as a group and as individuals, revealing that many were motivated not by crass self-interest but by a desire to help build a more democratic South. And in examining Republican congressmen, they have found not tyrants but the authors of many of the constitutional rights that Americans hold most dear.
Unfortunately, little of the new work has made it out of the halls of the academy and into public consciousness. Reconstruction remains difficult to fathom and can be painful to discuss. It is complicated to teach. The issues it raises are bracingly—but also distressingly—contemporary, and while the period has many heroes and heroines, it offers little in the way of happy endings.
The National Park Service's decision to commission a study of Reconstruction is therefore timely, significant, and consistent with its growing willingness to tackle difficult histories. Departing from the convention of marking only those events that can be narrated as positive or heroic, the Park Service has recently developed sites commemorating Japanese Internment during World War II, and the massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people at Sand Creek by Coloradans enrolled in the U.S. Army. In perhaps no area has the remaking of the parks been more obvious than in the Civil War, where parks once concerned only with battles now provide information on what caused the war and extend the story from white soldiers on both sides to include the roles of black soldiers, slaves, and freedpeople.
By taking up Reconstruction, the Park Service moves into territory that is similarly sensitive and important. Over the next year, the organization will compile information from historians, its own staff members, state historical societies, and the general public about the specific sites that would best capture Reconstruction's history. Identifying those sites and creating a framework for public engagement with Reconstruction cannot smooth out the complexity and travails of the era, but it can be a part of fulfilling the Park Service’s mission of helping Americans grapple with this nation's history, a challenge that in the end means not just celebrating its victories but also remembering its tragedies and asking serious questions about defeats and wrong turns.
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