The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction in National Parks

AHA Session 211
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall North (Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level)
Gregory P. Downs, University of California, Davis
Kate Masur, Northwestern University
Bruce Babbitt, Department of the Interior
Eric Foner, Columbia University
Thavolia Glymph, Duke University
Billy Keyserling, Beaufort, South Carolina

Session Abstract

This panel brings together crucial figures in the effort to create the first-ever National Park Service unit dedicated to Reconstruction, created around Beaufort, S.C. by a January 2017 presidential proclamation, to discuss the lessons of the struggle for historians interested in public memory, public parks, and Reconstruction.

Historians have long lamented the challenge in bringing public attention to the complex, crucial era of Reconstruction that followed the United States’ Civil War and that brought a constitutional, labor, and political revolution that, for a time, four million former slaves used to re-establish families, create schools and churches, purchase property, defend their newfound legal rights in court, and elect hundreds of magistrates, county commissioners, sheriffs, legislators, and congressmen. Part of the challenge in assessing this period in the public memory is its relative brevity and its violent overthrow. By the end of the 19th century, many (although not all) of these gains had been swept away by a combination of paramilitary violence and legal disenfranchisement and segregation. Although scholars from W. E. B. DuBois to Eric Foner have overturned now-discredited Dunning School views of Reconstruction as a mistake, it has been difficult to convey a richer understanding of Reconstruction to a public audience.

Particularly challenging has been the effort to bring Reconstruction into the National Park Service, a key place where non-academic Americans encounter the nation’s past in large numbers. Although more than 70 park units are dedicated to the Civil War, there had been none dedicated to Reconstruction before January 2017. Since 2000, historians have worked with former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and many NPS employees to try to correct this situation, but an earlier effort led by Eric Foner and Babbitt died due to political pushback 12 years ago. This effort was recently analyzed in Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller, “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina, the National Park Service’s First Reconstruction Unit,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7:1 (March 2017): 39-66.

After Beaufort-area leaders, NPS officials, and historians revived the effort four years ago, they encountered a range of political challenges, from creating an historical justification to unifying disparate local groups behind one proposal. In January 2017, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation creating a National Park Service unit in Beaufort County, S.C. dedicated specifically to telling the story of Reconstruction through the many sites there connected to political, educational, and family reconstruction.

This roundtable brings together leading figures in the effort to create the park in order to discuss the lessons of its creation for historians interested in public memory, generally, in park sites, or in Reconstruction. It includes the former Interior Secretary who led the earlier effort and backed the more-recent one; the leading historian in the earlier effort; a prominent historian and South Carolina native who participated in the recent effort; a leading National Park Service employee who led action inside the NPS; and the mayor of Beaufort, S.C.

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