“Probably no other chapter of American history has been the subject, one might say the victim, of such varied and conflicting interpretations as what attempts to give unity and coherence to the era we call Reconstruction.” Editor’s Introduction, "Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution" by Eric Foner
With the sesquicentennial of the Civil War headed toward Appomattox, a distance of less than nine months, some will begin to look at the horizon and anticipate what important chapter of our history is up next.
Personally, I am very excited. I’m weary of the war, where so many souls were lost, so many injured, and at the end of five long years, a President assassinated.
It’s always daunting, the task of getting up to speed on a period of time you didn’t live through. It took me about five years to get a grip on the Civil War. The better half and I took day trips to many of the key battlegrounds in Virginia, and the two turning points in Maryland and Pennsylvania. I spent a lot of time lying with my mistress, a heavy book.
I now look forward to a new journey. This one will begin with Reconstruction, which ran from the Civil War to 1877.
My preliminary readings show this to be an era full of stories, including the rebuilding of the South, Grant’s administration, and soaring gains for black Americans. Two black Senators and more than a dozen Congressmen would blaze a trail to the Capitol. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed black Americans a set of rights, at least on paper.
In the modern sense we think of Civil Rights as beginning in the 1950s, but the first set of battlegrounds took place when many in the country became uncomfortable with the gains made by African Americans and their cheering of the passage of the 15th Amendment, which officially ended slavery.
Most unfortunately, those who were riled and fearful became organized and pushed back against the rise of African Americans, who sought to make the union a bi-racial democracy.
Commemorating history does not have to be a zero sum game, but in the next 10 to 15 years, Americans will pay much more attention to the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War than the run up to the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the landmark legislation of the “Reconstruction Amendments.” The former will be an easy sell to city and county governments and budget makers. Although they should sell themselves as critical and fascinating moments, the latter two will require finesse, perseverance and the patience of Job.
Anniversaries are an author’s best friend, and we will begin to see the work of historians who will hopefully update all the above subject areas.
If you are like me, a big fan of Frederick Douglass, then you are anticipating the bicentennial of his birth (2018). Let me share with you a couple of things I just found out. David Blight is writing a book on the Lion of Anacostia. This is very exciting because the last tomb on Douglass was McFeely’s in 1991. And of course, Blight knows a thing or two about race and reunion.
Another new book hitting the shelves soon is by Professor Zoe Trodd. Professor and Chair of American Literature in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, she found that Frederick Douglass is the most photographed American of the 19th century (160 images).
In her forthcoming book (January 2015), she argues that Douglass as a cultural icon was using photographs in three ways:
- to assert black humanity in place of the slave "thing"
- to show how authentic representations could break down racial barriers
- to create a black public persona within the abolitionist culture of dissent.
My message today is a personal one, but I hold high hopes towns, cities, counties and communities will take an honest look at their plans for public memory in the coming years. Sometimes fortune does favor the bold, and it will take bold leadership to give Emancipation and the Reconstruction Era their due amount of time and resources.
The war was over, but conflicts over race stood on the horizon. I would ask Chambers of Commerce and historic organizations to take stock of their historical markers. We owe it to those foot soldiers of democracy, both black and white, to make known their struggles and stories. It’s the least we can do as we try to learn more about why it took so long after the Civil War for the precious documents those first patriots wrote and approved, to become a reality across this great country called the United States of America.