Monumental Effort: Historians and the Creation of the National Monument to Reconstruction

One of President Obama’s last act while in office was to designate a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort, South Carolina. The AHA supported this important expansion of the National Park Service system with a letter to the US Secretary of the Interior on November 16, 2016. AHA Today spoke to historians Greg Downs and Kate Masur, whose advocacy was crucial to this effort, about the significance of the designation, the backstory of the monument’s creation, and next steps.

What is the significance of the creation of the Reconstruction monument in Beaufort, South Carolina? Reconstruction is the most-misunderstood period in US history. It was a period of extraordinary social, political, and constitutional change, when the United States abolished slavery and remade the Constitution to create birthright citizenship, equal protection, and due process, and to ban racial discrimination in voting. Newly freed from bondage, southern African Americans reconstituted families, created schools and churches, elected thousands of local officials, and began to acquire property. In that formative era, Americans debated who counted as a citizen and what powers citizens possessed in ways that still resonate today. Yet 150 years after the Military Reconstruction Acts that launched biracial democracy in the ex-Confederate states, many people still do not know anything about the era, or they know a series of myths and legends.

Penn School Historic District, Brick Church, Beaufort County, SC. Established in 1862, Penn School provided education for former slaves. Credit: Library of Congress

Penn School Historic District, Brick Church, Beaufort County, SC. Established in 1862, Penn School provided education for former slaves. Credit: Library of Congress

Shortly after white terrorists overthrew biracial governments of the southern states, scholars like Woodrow Wilson and William A. Dunning, novelists like Thomas Dixon, filmmakers like D. W. Griffith, and many others promulgated a propaganda campaign to discredit Reconstruction, deny black equality, and consolidate white supremacy in the South. Although historians have worked to undermine this false narrative since the 1935 publication of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, and have developed a powerful counter-narrative over the past 50 years culminating in Eric Foner’s extraordinary Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, we have struggled to break the hold of those older myths. Without an accurate understanding of Reconstruction, Americans cannot understand the roots of their own democracy, the extraordinary achievements of ex-slaves in the decades after the Civil War, and the violent retraction of those constitutional rights.

National parks are places where people who do not necessarily read academic history come to engage with the past. And parks have been central to communicating new views of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. But no National Park Service (NPS) site has focused on Reconstruction. For that reason, breaking that barrier and placing Reconstruction in the park system is an extraordinary moment in public history, and we hope it will spur many more efforts to commemorate Reconstruction.

The creation of the Reconstruction monument, according to the New York Times, “is the culmination of a more than 15-year effort.” Why did it take so long? What about the current political or historical moment enabled its creation now? First we should explain something about the definition of a national monument. The “monument” label does not signify a statue or plaque or other marker. Rather, in the lexicon of the NPS, a “national monument” is a particular category of protected area. National monuments are designated by the US president under the Antiquities Act of 1906; by contrast, national parks are typically created through legislation passed by Congress.

Looking at the long sweep of history, it’s clear that there’s been no NPS site dedicated to Reconstruction for the reasons offered above: the period was broadly understood as not worth remembering, as defined by illegal federal overreach and the allegedly unnatural elevation of African Americans to a plane of equality with whites. Whereas the Civil War was traditionally understood as worthy of commemoration, many people simply wanted to forget what they considered the disastrous experiment that was Reconstruction.

After historians essentially overhauled the prevailing views of Reconstruction, it became newly possible to imagine an NPS site dedicated to interpreting the period. The first major effort to create such a site began in 2000, when Bruce Babbitt, the secretary of the interior, and Eric Foner identified the Beaufort area as the ideal place. As historians Page Miller and Jennifer Whittmer Taylor explain in a forthcoming article in the Journal of the Civil War Era, local historians, activists, political leaders, and others formed a group to lobby Congress to create a Reconstruction site in Beaufort. In spring 2002, Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D) and Representative Joe Wilson (R) introduced legislation that moved the project forward. Several historians’ associations supported the effort, including the AHA. But the South Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans pushed back, launching a lobbying campaign of their own. Wilson soon withdrew his support, and the legislation died.

The National Park Service decided to take another look at Reconstruction a few years ago, in connection with commemorations of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The last few decades have seen a growing willingness on the part of NPS to commemorate and grapple with difficult aspects of the nation’s past, including Japanese internment during WWII and the Sand Creek Massacre, and so too was NPS ready to deal with Reconstruction in all its complexity. Procedurally, people in the NPS realized that even if Congress did not act, it might be possible to persuade President Obama to create a national monument. That was a good idea. Obama has now created more national monuments than any president in American history, and many of those monuments deal with aspects of the nation’s past that had not previously enjoyed much attention from the Park Service, including women’s rights, gay liberation, and Mexican American history. Those choices also fit with the NPS’s own goal of increasing the diversity of the public it serves. And so in the end, a variety of factors came together—leadership, persistence, strategy, and timing—to make the monument possible in 2017.

Who were the people involved in bringing this monument to fruition? Can you describe the role of local lawmakers and the National Park Service in the effort? What role did historians play? Parks are creations of our democratic system not of government administrators, so almost every park is at heart the creation of local people who organize for it, explain its purposes, build coalitions, and lobby elected officials in Congress and the White House. This is particularly true for Beaufort.

Camp Saxton, a former plantation, in Port Royal is where General Rufus Saxton recruited 5,000 African Americans into the Union Army. Credit: Library of Congress

Camp Saxton, a former plantation, in Port Royal is where General Rufus Saxton recruited 5,000 African Americans into the Union Army. Credit: Library of Congress

In Beaufort local African Americans have long preserved the memory of Reconstruction and of local heroes like Robert Smalls. On nearby Hilton Head Island, for example, African Americans with long roots in the region, including scholar and activist Emory Campbell, and more-recent arrivals like Charles Bogguess, have kept alive the story of Mitchelville, arguably the first self-governing black community in the US South, a village of small, tidy homes where ex-slaves elected local leaders in 1862 and worked for wages on nearby US bases.

At the turn of the 21st century, a generation of NPS historians and superintendents including now-retired chief historian Bob Sutton reshaped the agency’s portrayal of the Civil War by adding explicit discussions of slavery as the cause of the war to its battlefield parks. After the collapse of the Reconstruction effort, people in Beaufort recognized that they had allies in high places but that the effort would have to come from people on the ground. Luckily, NPS Community Partnership Specialist Michael Allen, a South Carolina native and longtime NPS employee, had both the connections and the reputation to bring people together and get them talking. No one has played a bigger role in the creation of the park than Michael.

Our own involvement began in 2013 as we investigated possibilities for public recognition of the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction. So much attention had been paid to the Civil War’s 150th anniversary; would anyone notice Reconstruction’s? With the help of AHA executive director Jim Grossman, we met with Bob Sutton and his colleague John Latschar. In 2014 Sutton and Latschar convened a group of historians to discuss the importance of Reconstruction with NPS staff. That led in 2016 to the publication of the park service’s first-ever handbook of Reconstruction, which we helped Bob and John edit, and then the first-ever National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction, which we wrote with the assistance of Mike Allen and NPS southeastern regional historian Turkiya Lowe and National Register chief Paul Loether and many others. Together academic historians and NPS staff helped develop frameworks for bringing Reconstruction into the park system.

Still everything depended upon local action. Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling strongly backed the project and built support in Beaufort’s business community and among its residents. And leaders at Penn Center and Brick Baptist Church and the US Naval Hospital in Beaufort all came to the table to find a common cause. This broad base of support helped to bring together South Carolina politicians who often disagree, like Democratic Congressman James Clyburn and Republican Congressman Mark Sanford.

In his proclamation declaring the establishment of the monument, President Barack Obama speaks to Beaufort’s specific history that qualifies it as the site for the monument. Is there significance to the proclamation itself as a historical document? We think the president’s declaration is a remarkable piece of history writing. What it represents, on one level, is a complete acceptance of the version of Reconstruction history that academic historians have been writing about for years but that has so rarely made its way into public consciousness. It places slavery’s abolition at the center of the story and recognizes Reconstruction as the “Nation’s Second Founding” and the era in which the federal government, for the first time, promised to protect the rights of all individuals living within the nation. It represents a complete break with the old “Dunning School”/Birth of a Nation narrative.

The declaration also provides an overview of the history of emancipation and Reconstruction in the Beaufort area, mentioning by name the historian Willie Lee Rose and her book, Rehearsal for Reconstruction (1964). Although the account goes beyond Rose’s book chronologically and does more to highlight the remarkable story of Robert Smalls—who escaped from slavery, commandeered a Confederate ship, and later had a long career in politics—we were gratified to see Rose cited in this way. Willie Lee Rose was one of many students of C. Vann Woodward who were inspired in the era of the Civil Rights Movement to study Reconstruction, and her book has been justly recognized as central to the broader revisionist project of which it was part. Rose was part of a cohort of students working to overthrow the Dunning school, and many of them were guided by Sara Dunlap Jackson, an African American archivist at the National Archives who introduced a generation of scholars to the richness of federal records for documenting African American history and the history of this period. After the monument designation was announced, Christopher Phillips, chair of the history department at University of Cincinnati, told us how he saw him himself as part of a genealogy that included Woodward and Rose and his own advisor, William McFeely, author of many books on the Reconstruction era. Phillips also wrote about the impact of Jackson, who inspired and challenged many of the historians who contributed to the broad reinterpretation of Reconstruction that was the foundation for our own work, including Ira Berlin and the crucial work of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project. And so, in a certain way, the White House proclamation seemed to us not just a vindication of Reconstruction itself, but a testament to the scholarship of generations of historians and an example of how, over time, we can in fact help set the story straight.

What happens next? Will you continue to be involved in the construction of the monument, and in telling the story of Reconstruction at the site? While the Beaufort project has passed an extraordinary milestone and is now built into the fabric of the National Park Service system, a great deal remains to be done. Already the NPS has established a website explaining the park’s purpose and the overall importance of Reconstruction. Next will come the hard work of stitching the separate sites together and establishing a narrative that will help visitors understand what they are seeing and why it matters.

But as significant as Beaufort is, it isn’t the end of the road for the National Park Service’s engagement with Reconstruction. There are many sites in the NPS system that could and should interpret Reconstruction for the public; a few already do. Our work on the National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction and on the NPS’s handbook on Reconstruction was intended, in part, to provide resources for NPS employees and local people interested in bringing Reconstruction into parks now interpreted solely as Civil War sites or—as in New Orleans—largely without reference to the major Reconstruction events that happened there.

The Reconstruction Era National Monument represents, we hope, both a turning point and a starting point for new efforts. We hope people will learn from, and be inspired by, the collaborative work that led to this monument. In particular, we think that with some effort on both sides, the relationship between history professors and public historians (inside and outside the NPS) could be strengthened in ways that would benefit everyone, including our students. We have the opportunity now to make Reconstruction central to dozens of already-existing parks and perhaps also to give support to local people seeking to create new National Historic Landmarks or even additional park units. We hope one day visitors will encounter the history of Reconstruction in every southeastern state, and in at least a few northern and western ones, too.

Gregory P. Downs is associate professor of history at University of California, Davis. Kate Masur is associate professor of history at Northwestern University.

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