A dozen years after first being rebuffed in South Carolina, the National Park Service is poised to make another run at designating trails, historic sites, and perhaps a park or two in commemoration of one of U.S. history’s most controversial periods: Reconstruction in the former Confederacy.
After nearly a century of building feel-good “guns and drums” parks, only in recent years has the National Park Service begun to take on some of the nation’s more inglorious and controversial moments. Recently designated is the site of the World War II-era Manzanar internment facility in the California desert, where more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans were detained. And there’s the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado—where 650 cavalrymen under the command of a U.S. Army colonel slaughtered more than 100 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, mostly women and children—which has also been designated.
Next up on the list: Reconstruction, a time deeply infused with the legacy of racial prejudice, civil- and voting-rights violations, and power politics. The effort is timely. On its sesquicentennial, for example, Memphis, Tennessee, recently memorialized an 1866 massacre in which, following the rumor of a freedman’s insurrection, 48 people were murdered and hundreds more badly beaten or raped by rampaging white mobs over a 36-hour period. Horrors like that are why the National Park Service has called the aftermath of the Civil War “one of the most complicated, poorly understood, and significant periods in American history.” Millions of former slaves found liberation, but they had to create a new community for themselves inside a very fragile nation—one in which many residents of the former Confederacy found the new realities of abolition and military defeat repugnant. Citing Reconstruction scholarship as “slow to enter public consciousness,” this year the National Park Service published a handbook for rangers and historians to ensure that “discredited legends” (like neo-Confederate claims that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery) don’t “stand in place of historical fact.”