Beverly Bond is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and the former director of the African and African American studies program there. Susan Eva O’Donovan is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
We’re a nation that loves our centennials and sesquicentennials. We celebrate wars; we celebrate statehood; we celebrate the founding of our nation and the founding of our schools and universities. MIT recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of its move from one side of the Charles River to the other, and the National Park Service, which turned 100 years old on August 25, has been celebrating all year long. That we’re fascinated by centennials and an increasing number of sesquicentennials is only human. They help us mark time, measure progress, and understand who we are and what we’ve been and done in the past. Because much of our national identity is tied to how we view those pasts, commemorations are by definition deeply political processes. Since it isn’t practical, much less feasible, to celebrate everything, centennials force us to choose, to weigh options, and to come to a collective decision about what’s important and, inversely, what’s not.
For 150 years Reconstruction has failed to make that commemorative cut. As a people we did not believe those tumultuous years that unfolded in the wake of the Confederate surrender have been worth the effort of public recognition. Why this has been the case is a question tangled up in a long history of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow. Written off in the early twentieth century by William C. Dunning and his students as a tragic error and then increasingly sealed behind an impenetrable wall of silence, Reconstruction has been the nonhistory, the nonevent. Yet as historians and those who read historians’ books and articles know, Reconstruction was a remarkably transformative period. It is the period in which the United States experienced that “new birth of freedom.” It was an era in which three constitutional amendments were debated, drafted, and ratified in the space of five years. It was an era in which the political universe was repopulated and in which ideas about governance were completely overhauled, laying the legal, social, political, and productive ground for who we have become as a people and as a nation in the twenty-first century. Evicting Reconstruction from of our public discussions is akin to leaving out the American Revolution, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, or Kennedy’s assassination. To overlook or ignore Reconstruction, to shutter and silence its history leaves much of who we are and how we came to be un- or at least underexplained.
Public perception is starting to change. Over the past few years a new generation of historians, led by Gregory P. Downs of the University of California, Davis, and Kate Masur of Northwestern University, have been working in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS) to “push the era—in all its complexity—back onto the map of America’s collective memory.” As Greg and Kate explain in an essay that appeared in the April 29, 2015, issue of The Atlantic, the NPS is no stranger to dealing with the so-called hard histories—those that are easier to forget than to remember—and in early 2016 the agency released the first fruits of this effort, a slim anthology titled The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook. But telling hard histories requires more than one volume, no matter how brilliant and respected its contributors. It requires public action. So, as the handbook was going to press, the NPS also outlined a novel approach in their ongoing effort to break the silences that have long surrounded Reconstruction’s history. Strategically retreating from what have been chronically unsuccessful efforts to develop conventional interpretive sites—initiatives that require deep reserves of money and political will—the new plan is to mobilize communities to develop their own public programming, focused on specific episodes of large-scale race violence. This plan avoids the practical and ideological obstacles that have long stymied efforts to bring Reconstruction to the surface of our collective memory. Moreover, in opening investigations into the mob violence that repeatedly rocked the post–Civil War nation, the NPS’s new model invites a more thoroughgoing discussion about Reconstruction, its origins, its meanings, and its legacies.
As specialists of the nineteenth-century African American experience, we had been following these developments avidly, albeit from afar. We have long wanted to see Reconstruction take its place on our national historical landscape. In July 2015 our role as cheerful spectators ended abruptly when Greg contacted us through Facebook (where would we be without social media?!), asking if we would be interested in organizing a commemoration of what was among the first of those large-scale episodes of race violence: the three days of terror that swept Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1866. We couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Profoundly disturbed by what had just unfolded in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, and committed to the newly organized Black Lives Matter movement, we knew that the time had come to leave the sanctity of our university classrooms and to do more to engage with a much larger audience. As we understood it then, and continue to understand it today, we have a moral, ethical, and intellectual obligation to counter—publicly, repeatedly, and insistently—what remains a deeply entrenched and pro-Confederate narrative of racism, hate, and bigotry. We knew we needed to expand our classroom exponentially. Greg’s invitation on behalf of the NPS gave us that chance. Continue reading