Saturday, September 5, 2015

Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era

Jennifer Schuessler 's "Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era," (New York  Times, August 24, 2015) is further proof that a growing number of Americans are struggling to come to grips with the historical reality that slavery and racism have been indelibly imprinted on American identity and culture from the very beginning. There can be little doubt that the Reconstruction Era has long been one of the most polarizing topics of our national story--both for professional historians and for the general public. The particulars of that polarization have been skillfully delineated by Bernard Weisberger in "The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography," The Journal of Southern History, v.25 ( November, 1959), pp.427-447 and by Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988).

There has been general agreement that the Era of Reconstruction began with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in January,1863 and ended with the Compromise of 1887, in which Congressional Democrats agreed not to contest the nefarious 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes as president.In exchange,  Republicans disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, and allowed white Democrats to control the politics and government of the Southern states. Even so, some Republicans still tried to block efforts to impose complete legal segregation and the "Jim Crow" system until well into the 1890s. The final blow came in 1896, with the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" decision in Plessey v. Ferguson.

From that point until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Reconstruction Era historiography was almost completely dominated by pro-Southern scholars, such as the "Dunning School", who argued that black suffrage had been a gigantic blunder and that the Republican state governments that rested upon the votes of Negro Freedmen, Northern"carpetbaggers", and Southern "scalawags" had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive. This interpretation was given great popular currency in myriad books and movies, such as The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Just about the sole dissenting voice among historians was that of WEB Du Bois, the first African American to earns a doctorate at Harvard, co-founder of the NAACP, and civil rights activist, As editor of The Crisis, he penned numerous editorials and essays on Reconstruction; he also published Black Reconstruction in America, in which he refuted the arguments of the Dunning School, while painting a richly detailed and highly positive portrait of Reconstruction in the various states. His work later served as a primer for historians of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Foner, Weisberger, John Hope Franklin,  C. Vann Woodward, and Kenneth Stampp, who have almost totally rewritten the historical record.Their work was inspired by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, which has often been called" the Second Reconstruction."

As Foner recently proclaimed, these more recent scholars regard the Dunning School as "not just an interpretation of history. It was part of the edifice of the Jim Crow system. It was an explanation for and justification of taking the vote away from black people on the grounds that they completely abused it during Reconstruction....And it was only after the Civil Rights revolution swept away the racist underpinnings of that old view that black people are incapable of taking part in American democracy--that you get a new view of Reconstruction widely accepted." By the end of the 20th  century, their pro-Reconstruction interpretation predominated just about everywhere, except among white supremacists and die-hard believers in "the Lost Cause."  Perhaps the best indicator
of how far the interpretive pendulum has swung during the past half-century is Foner's admonition in "Why Reconstruction Matters," (New York Times, March 28, 2015): "For a long time, it was an intellectual straightjacket for much of the white South, and historians have a lot to answer for in helping to propagate a racist system  in this country."

Inevitably, this historiographical revolution is being gradually reflected in the exhibits, artifacts, and archival material displayed in historical sites and museums. Many of those venues, as Schuessler demonstrates in great detail, are staffed and operated by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS)  During the past two decades, NPS has overhauled its Civil War sites, incorporating material on slavery and race into exhibits that had long been criticized by scholars for avoiding discussion of their root causes. Even so, its 408 properties still do not include a single site dedicated the postwar struggle to build a racially equal democracy. " It is biggest gap in the record by far, according to Robert Sutton, its chief historian, adding that too many Americans still regard Reconstruction as "a disaster" best left forgotten."

To fill that chasm, the NPS has hired two historians to conduct a comprehensive survey of "nationally significant" sites connected with Reconstruction--the first step toward possible designation of a new site by Congress. Its on-the-ground coordinator is Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with three decades of experience. Allen, who grew up in South Carolina, admits that he "had to become an adult to learn that history. It was never presented to me." This initiative was first announced in May and has been given added impetus by the proliferation of racial conflicts in Ferguson and Charleston, as well as by the continuing debates over Black Lives Matter. These incidents, she notes, "have only underlined enduring relevance of an era that saw both the dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans and their violent rollback." As Allen has observed, the nation has just finished commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and some people have jumped to various civil rights anniversaries, but "how do you make that jump without dealing with what came in between?"

The NPS, in acknowledging the interpretive recalibrations wrought by historians, has defined the Era as dating from 1861, when slaves began fleeing to Union encampments, until 1898, when Jim Crow laws were firmly in place. It will highlight the passage of the  13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which granted equal citizenship and voting rights to four million formerly enslaved African-Americans, as well as the creation of the first statewide public school systems in Southern states (for whites as well as blacks), the first significant public hospitals, new labor policies and other transformations. "It was an amazing period in the history of American democracy," says Kate Masur, a Northwestern University professor who is one of the authors of the seminal NPS report. "It is when you really see these ideas about equality and human rights that America had put on the table being understood in a new way." There may not be any field of history "where the gap between what historians know and what people believe," added Gregory P. Downs, co-author of the report who has recently moved from City University of New York to U.C., Davis. He and Masur have also edited a  collection of essays on Reconstruction written by leading historians, which will be distributed in all NPS shops beginning this month.

The NPS is searching for possible museum sites, and Schuessler makes a strong case for Beaufort, South Carolina, a city of some 13,000 that sits between such popular tourist venues as Charleston,   Hilton Head, and Savannah.  It was at Beaufort that Union forces took control in November, 1861, and initiated what historian Willie Lee Rose called the "rehearsal for Reconstruction." Since its sea island plantation owners had fled, soldiers worked with missionaries, teachers, and former slaves to establish a viable society. They built churches and schools, and founded Mitchelville, on Hilton Head, where about 3,500 people constructed houses, established mandatory education, and established a government. It was from nearby Charleston Harbor that Robert Smalls, the pilot of  an enslaved ship commandeered a Confederate vessel that joined Union ships in battle, later bought his former master's house and was elected to the state legislature and to Congress. Beaufort's mayor, Billy Keyserling, is attempting to create a "Reconstruction hub" in its central business district. A bill to allocate funding passed the Senate in 2003, only to fail in the House, primarily due to an  campaign led by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, that stigmatized Reconstruction as a time that "victimized many South Carolinians." The organization helped sponsor a 150th commemoration of "The War," that culminated in a "secession ball." Allen, who has mediated discussions between the SCV and the NAACP that resulted in the removal of a Confederate battle flag from the state capitol, is optimistic about the creation of a" new climate."  Democratic Congressman James E. Clyburn, a former high school history teacher who represents part of Beaufort County is more sanguine, seeing the NPS plans as "long overdue," but predicting "some resistance, maybe some significant resistance." He charges that the NPS initiative has been "intentionally misrepresented" by the Sons and similar   organizations.

Some institutions, especially the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia SC, are already highlighting Reconstruction's positive achievements, while denouncing the "political terrorism" that eventually undermined them. Fielding Fred, director of house museums for historic Columbia, believes that "it's not like we hit people over the head and tell them 'Everything you've heard about Reconstruction is wrong,' but as people move through, you can see them thinking." The president of the Mitchelville Preservation Project calls it "an incredible story that has never been told," even while admitting that he "personally doesn't like Reconstruction."

Downs, Masur's co-director, sums the task up succinctly: "It took a lot of time and effort to establish the myths of Reconstruction. It's going to take a lot of time and effort to tear down those myths."




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