U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Where Next for the Reconstruction Era?

Last week the city of Columbia hosted a symposium on the Reconstruction era. Headlined by a talk by Eric Foner at a local church Thursday night, the symposium attempted to both present current trends in Reconstruction historiography and also show how these trends affect the public history of the Reconstruction period. The symposium was a melding of academic and public histories of Reconstruction. The history of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina has undergone a dramatic public re-interpretation in recent years, following up on decades of changing academic scholarship on the Reconstruction period. Today’s post is a reflection on where Reconstruction historiography is going, with special care paid to what intellectual historians, in particular, can contribute to this still-vibrant field.

First, we need to consider Reconstruction in an international perspective. Already, books such as Reconstructions (a must-read if you want to understand where the field is right now) and Adam Ewing’s Age of Garvey cover this to some extent. Still, questions about how the plight of recently freed African American men and women in the South—and how that was seen in Latin America or Western Europe—could provide some interesting fodder for historians down the road. After all, as plenty of scholarship has already pointed out, the American Civil War was seen by radicals, liberals, and republicans First Black Congressmenacross the Atlantic World as a perilous moment for the idea of representative democracy. Was Reconstruction seen in the same light? The experiment in giving African American men the right to vote and attempting to overturn the last vestiges of the Old South deserve to be seen in light of a larger international context of events such as the Paris Commune of 1871 or the ending of slavery in Cuba and Brazil.

Memory of the Reconstruction era is also important to consider. The rise of the “Lost Cause” narrative by the end of the 19th century cemented in the minds of most Americans a memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods that, 150 years later, historians and other scholars are still struggling to eject from the public mind. Yet I think it is worth investigating the memory of Reconstruction among African Americans from the 1880s until the Civil Rights Movement. I have written elsewhere about Ebony magazine and Lerone Bennett’s use of the publication to write about Reconstruction for a popular audience. But with sources such as the WPA slave narratives—which include stories about the Reconstruction era—and a variety of sources from print culture and elsewhere, down the road I wish to examine Reconstruction memory from an African American perspective. Of course, the current dissertation project must come first! But I’ll be teasing out some of these thoughts in future blog posts.

This leads to my next point—the future of the public memory of the Reconstruction era. One of the panels I was able to make at the Reconstruction Symposium addressed this very question. Including National Park Service (NPS) Community Partner Specialist Michael Allen, historians Kate Masur and Gregory Downs, University of South Carolina Ph.D. candidate in history (with a focus on Public History) Jennifer Taylor, along with Dr. Foner, the panel talked about the present efforts of the National Park Service to find new sites to use for Reconstruction public memory. Already, the NPS has dealt with some of these issues in the commemoration of the American Civil War for the last five years. But Reconstruction will present some unique challenges in helping Americans to think about how that era has cast a long shadow over subsequent periods of American history. Intellectual historians will, of course, have a role to play in this as well. Ultimately, the Reconstruction era’s full legacy is one that won’t be revealed for some time—precisely because we are still living with that legacy.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert: Thanks for this. I wonder too about the uses of Reconstruction in terms of public history, memory, and politics. This matters in terms of reparations—i.e. how has the memory and scholarship of Reconstruction structured arguments about the need for reparations? Also, how has the Reconstruction affected memorialization and monuments in the South? – TL

    • Great questions. I’ll start with the latter first.

      Reconstruction, at least as far as I can tell from the current historiography of the American South and memory, was seen as a terrible era in Southern history (really, American history) by about 1900. Throughout most of the early 20th century, any historical markers devoted to the era put Reconstruction in a bad light. For instance, come to the campus of the University of South Carolina and you’ll still find signs which refer to the “federal occupation” of the Reconstruction period, and ignore the remarkable sight of African American professors and students on campus at USC during that same time period.

      As for the reparations debate–it’s funny you should mention this. I was part of a radio show conversation about Reconstruction this past Sunday afternoon, and a caller chimed in with a question about reparations. I mentioned that any conversation couldn’t end with slavery–indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay is powerful partially (in my opinion at least) because he refers to so much that happened to African Americans *after* slavery. And of course there’s the phrase “forty acres and a mule” which come from the time period, and are often used as a short hand for broken promises to African Americans.

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