Let’s Not Just Remember Reconstruction

Lately, I have been musing a lot about the history of Reconstruction and race in the United States.  Current events, as well as reminders of historical ones, have been motivating my thoughts.  Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2015 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Signature Event.  On Thursday evening, I attended a lecture on Civil War memory by Dr. Caroline E. Janney of Purdue University followed by a performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  I observed educational programming for schoolchildren at Historic Ramsey House on Friday.  On Saturday, I volunteered at the East Tennessee Historical Society’s Kids’ Tent as part of the Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee.  I also attended the Peace Jubilee at World’s Fair Park that evening, a commemoration of the Blue & Gray Reunion that took place in Knoxville in 1890.  The other activities associated with the Sesquicentennial event were quite extensive, including a scholarly roundtable discussion about Reconstruction, bus tours, vintage baseball games, dramatic readings, living history, and more.

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Opening Procession of the Civil War Exposition & Peace Jubilee, part of the Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee, Saturday, May 2, 2015, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Tennessee’s effort to commemorate Reconstruction is commendable.  As enthusiastically as many Americans want to remember the Civil War, relatively few seek to remember and commemorate Reconstruction.  So I appreciate the entire premise of this weekend of events, sponsored by the State of Tennessee, the East Tennessee Historical Society, and other local institutions.  But, although I did not attend all of the events, I feel that, given all that has happened in the news recently with respect to racial tensions, an opportunity for potentially transformative discussion has been passed up.

According to my understanding of the immediate post-Civil War era (thanks in large part to Prof. Randolph Roth at The Ohio State University), the roots of modern race relations (and much of our modern society in general) lie in the Reconstruction era, not in the era of slavery.  To understand the imbroglio of race relations in the United States, one must understand Reconstruction.  Yet, until recently, institutions and sites have been decidedly reluctant to discuss it.  While at the National Council on Public History conference last month, I attended a panel that discussed a failed effort to create a National Park Service site commemorating Reconstruction in Beaufort, South Carolina.  I was glad to read that the NPS did recently launch a comprehensive effort to create sites that would commemorate the era in the South (read a recent Atlantic article about that effort here).  So I feel that we are moving in the right direction.

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Reproduction Civil War-era objects at the Kids’ Table, Civil War Exposition & Peace Jubilee, Blue & Gray Reunion and Freedom Jubilee, Saturday, May 2, 2015, Knoxville, Tennessee.

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But we could still do more.  Unfortunately, I missed the roundtable on Reconstruction Tennessee on Friday – if any event last weekend did critically assess Reconstruction and drew present-day parallels, then it was probably that one.  But, I would imagine that the timing of the event (1-2:30 on a Friday) limited the potential audience, especially among the general public.  And, from what I could gather, there were few, if any, other events on the program that would have facilitated a profound discussion of Reconstruction and the roots of our modern challenges with respect to race.

The fact that Tennessee sponsored a Sesquicentennial event commemorating the beginning of Reconstruction is excellent.  It is also wonderful that the National Park Service is seeking to create sites that will facilitate the remembrance of Reconstruction.  But I do not think that we should stop there.  We should not just remember Reconstruction, but we should delve deeply – and without fear – into what it means for us today.

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The sun setting on the Sunsphere at World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, Tennessee.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Not Just Remember Reconstruction

  1. rtrube54 says:

    Lisa, I really appreciate this post and how understanding our fumbled attempt at reconstruction has shaped race relations down to the present. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on how such understanding could help us in the present.

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  2. lzsusner says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Bob. Reconstruction offered African Americans the potential for so much – freedom, voting rights, the opportunity to own land, and the chance to become political leaders themselves (most of these opportunities would apply to African-American men, not women, though). But with the leniency Andrew Johnson showed to former Confederates, the so-called “redemption” of the state governments, the passage of the black codes restricting the rights of freedpeople, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the federal government’s abandonment of the pursuit of equal rights, these opportunities were largely brief and short-lived, which I think led, understandably, to a sense of betrayal among some African Americans born just after the Civil War which likely contributed to our country’s modern-day racial strife. The professor that I mentioned in my post, Dr. Roth, assigns a book to his classes that illuminates this in a tragic, yet profound, way: “All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence” by Fox Butterfield. Butterfield traces the family of Willie Bosket, convicted murderer, all the way back to his enslaved ancestor, arguing that the roots of violence in the Bosket family lie in the injustices of Reconstruction, not in slavery. It’s a very troubling, but important, book for understanding the impact of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era on our present-day world.

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