Eric Foner calls on Obama in the NYT to designate a national monument for Reconstruction

Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, Obama, national monuments

Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis. Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia. Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern.

Although Americans are already looking ahead to the next presidential administration, President Obama retains the power to shape his legacy and our nation in his remaining weeks in office. He has already used his final months to create several national monuments, and we urge him to create another, one that will speak as much to the nation’s present and future as it does to its past: the first national monument dedicated to Reconstruction — the turbulent, misunderstood era after the Civil War — in Beaufort, S.C., which has one of the country’s highest concentrations of Reconstruction-related sites.

Work on the monument is already underway. Community leaders in Beaufort have submitted a formal request to the National Park Service for a monument that encompasses key sites of emancipation and postwar community-building. In May, two South Carolina representatives — James Clyburn, a Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a Republican — sponsored a resolution to establish a national monument to the Reconstruction era. And last month, a group of 17 historians who have been helping the National Park Service study Reconstruction, as well as the American Historical Association and other professional historical groups, endorsed this effort.

This is a crucial time to commemorate Reconstruction. The period after the Civil War created the modern United States: Three constitutional amendments ended slavery, created equal legal protection and birthright citizenship, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting laws. Four million formerly enslaved Americans reconstructed their families and communities, establishing thousands of churches and schools and civic organizations.

Reconstruction was the nation’s first great experiment in biracial democracy, with hundreds of thousands of black men able to vote for the first time, and significant numbers holding elective office. Largely for that reason, Southern planters led coups against local governments that supported Reconstruction, and went on to bar blacks and many poor whites from voting and to construct a system of Jim Crow racial exclusion.

The story of Reconstruction remains a rich and troubling one for a nation that prefers stories of progress over those of regression. It reminds us of the centrality of race-based slavery to our nation’s history; of the idealism of those, white and black, who sought to build a society based on racial equality upon the ashes of slavery; and of the violent overthrow of the experiment in biracial democracy. More broadly it reminds us that rights we sometimes take for granted can be taken away. ...

Read entire article at NYT

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