Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The National Park Service Wants Americans to Know About the Era of Reconstruction

Now that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is done it is time for a similar commemoration of the long period of Reconstruction.  Unfortunately, Reconstruction has never quite captured the imagination of Americans in the way that the Civil War has done.  And why would it?  Reconstruction was messy.  And it ended with the "redemption" of the South and the subsequent era of Jim Crow.

But as Eric Foner and others have argued, Reconstruction. at least in its early years, was also a time of great opportunity and agency for the freemen living under the Radical Republican regime.

The National Park Service wants to make Americans aware of this history. A recent article in The New York Times describes what the NPS is up to:

The park service has played an important role in shaping, and reshaping, popular historical awareness. During the past two decades it has overhauled its Civil War sites, incorporating material on slavery into exhibits that had long been criticized by scholars for avoiding discussion of the root causes of the conflict.

But its 408 properties nationwide still do not include a single site dedicated to the postwar struggle to build a racially equal democracy.

“It’s the biggest gap in the park service by far,” said Robert Sutton, the service’s chief historian, adding that too many Americans still regard Reconstruction as “a disaster” best left forgotten.

To fill that gap, the service has hired two historians to conduct its first comprehensive survey of “nationally significant” sites connected with Reconstruction — the first step toward possible designation of a new site by Congress.

The initiative was announced in May. Since then, the massacre of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, S.C., in the midst of continuing debates over the Black Lives Matter campaign, has only underlined the enduring relevance of an era that saw both the dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans and their violent rollback....

Historians have traditionally defined Reconstruction as lasting from 1865 until 1877, when most federal troops had withdrawn from the South and white supremacist Democrats gained control of state governments. The park service, echoing scholarly recalibrations, is taking a broader view, looking at sites dating from 1861, when slaves began fleeing to Union encampments, until 1898, when Jim Crow laws were fully in place.

The high-water years of Reconstruction included passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted equal citizenship and voting rights to 4 million formerly enslaved African-Americans, as well as the creation, for both blacks and whites, of the first statewide public school systems in the South, the first significant public hospitals, new labor policies and other transformations...

But Representative James E. Clyburn, a Democrat who represents part of Beaufort County in Congress, said a park service site, while “long overdue,” could meet “some resistance, maybe some significant resistance.”

“I don’t think it’s been poorly understood,” Mr. Clyburn, a former high school history teacher, said of Reconstruction. “I think it’s been intentionally misrepresented.”

Read the entire article here.