Historians call on Obama to create a monument to Reconstruction

Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction



Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis; Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. They are the editors of the collection “The World the Civil War Made.”

As President Obama heralded the opening of the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, he argued that we must confront all of American history, even the parts that “make us uncomfortable,” if we are to “learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.”

Obama can deliver on the promise of those words by using his authority to create a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort County, S.C., so that Americans can confront the dramatic victories and bitter defeats of a crucial time in our nation’s history. 

For a century and a half, the United States has struggled to commemorate — or even to remember — what happened in the wake of slavery’s abolition. During the 20th century, propagandists and white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake, while Northern nationalists often forgot a period that did not fit with commonly held narratives of progress. At National Park Service sites, as in popular movies and novels, it proved far easier to talk about the Civil War than to grapple with what came next.

Considering Reconstruction’s importance to American history, it is remarkable that not a single national park or monument is dedicated to its commemoration. In the period that began with the destruction of slavery during the Civil War and ended with the imposition of Jim Crow, the nation underwent a Second Founding as new constitutional amendments ended slavery, created equal protection under the law and national citizenship, and prevented disenfranchisement based on race. Four million people of African descent, subjugated as chattel slaves in 1861, were by 1870 building churches, schools and civic organizations. Hundreds of thousands of black voters elected congressmen, legislators and thousands of local officials.

This was an era of extraordinary democratic promise, but it was also one of great disappointment. Talking about Reconstruction means remembering how frequently white Americans resorted to violence and corruption to disenfranchise black voters and passed discriminatory laws to block African American economic and social equality, while the U.S. government stood by passively. ...




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