Growing up in Kingstree, S.C., in the 1960s, Michael Allen never knew the town had elected a black mayor in the years after the Civil War. There was no monument dedicated to the man’s memory. He was never mentioned in school.
“I had to become an adult to learn that history,” said Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service. “It was never presented to me.”
In more than three decades with the park service, Allen, 54, has helped revise historical interpretations at sites like Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and arrange new historical markers noting neglected African-American figures, like that mayor, throughout South Carolina.
Now, he’s the on-the-ground coordinator for what may be an even more ambitious project: improving public understanding of the complex, poorly understood and still hotly contested period known as Reconstruction.
The Park Service has played an important role in shaping, and reshaping, popular historical awareness. During the past two decades it has overhauled its Civil War sites, incorporating material on slavery into exhibits that had long been criticized by scholars for avoiding discussion of the root causes of the conflict.
But its 408 properties nationwide still do not include a single site dedicated to the postwar struggle to build a racially equal democracy.
“It’s the biggest gap in the park service by far,” said Robert Sutton, the service’s chief historian, adding that too many Americans still regard Reconstruction as “a disaster” best left forgotten.
To fill that gap, the service has hired two historians to conduct its first comprehensive survey of “nationally significant” sites connected with Reconstruction – the first step toward possible designation of a new site by Congress.
The initiative was announced in May. Since then, the massacre of nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the midst of continuing debates over the Black Lives Matter campaign, has only underlined the enduring relevance of an era that saw both the dramatic expansion of rights for African-Americans and their violent rollback.
“We have just finished commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and now some people have jumped to various civil rights anniversaries,” Allen said. “But how do you make that jump without dealing with what came in between?”
Historians have traditionally defined Reconstruction as lasting from 1865 until 1877, when most federal troops had withdrawn from the South and white supremacist Democrats gained control of state governments. The park service, echoing scholarly recalibrations, is taking a broader view, looking at sites dating from 1861, when slaves began fleeing to Union encampments, until 1898, when Jim Crow laws were fully in place.
The high-water years of Reconstruction included passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted equal citizenship and voting rights to 4 million formerly enslaved African-Americans, as well as the creation, for both blacks and whites, of the first statewide public school systems in the South, the first significant public hospitals, new labor policies and other transformations.
“It was an amazing period in the history of American democracy,” said Kate Masur, a professor at Northwestern University who is one of the authors of the report for the park service. “It’s when you really see these ideas about equality and human rights that America had put on the table being understood in a new way.”
That wasn’t always the view among historians. In keeping with the hunger for national reconciliation, early-20th-century scholars depicted Reconstruction as a time of corrupt “carpetbag rule.” The view was driven deep into popular culture with help from films like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation,” with its scenes of noble Ku Klux Klansmen helping “redeem” the South from incompetent black politicians and their Northern manipulators.
In recent decades, historians, most notably Eric Foner, have discredited such stereotypes, painting a more inspiring picture of a hopeful if difficult era. But that work has been slow to seep into the public consciousness.
“There may not be any field of history where the gap between what historians know and what people believe is as vast,” said Gregory P. Downs, Masur’s co-author, who recently moved from the City University of New York to University of California, Davis. (He and Masur have also edited a park service collection of essays on Reconstruction by leading historians, to be distributed in all its shops starting in September.)
Beaufort logical site
The Park Service is looking at sites across the country. But if there’s a logical place to center an uplifting story of Reconstruction, many say, it’s the area around Beaufort, a picturesque city of 13,000 that sits between several popular tourist destinations: Charleston and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and Savannah, Ga. (The team toured the area in May.)
It was here that Union forces took control in November 1861, setting the stage for what the historian Willie Lee Rose called the “rehearsal for Reconstruction.” On vast sea island plantations whose owners had fled, soldiers worked with missionaries, teachers and former slaves to create a workable society.
New churches and schools, like the Penn School on St. Helena Island, sprung up. At Mitchelville, founded on Hilton Head in 1862, about 3,500 freed people built houses, worked for wages, established mandatory education and elected a government.
Beaufort was also home to Robert Smalls, an enslaved ship’s pilot who in 1862 sailed a Confederate vessel out of Charleston Harbor to join the Northern fight. After the war, he bought his former master’s house and won election to the state Legislature and to Congress.
“If you ask any historian, they’re going to say there’s more in Beaufort than anywhere else that is tangible and can be documented,” said Billy Keyserling, that city’s mayor, who is trying to create a “Reconstruction hub” downtown.
Beaufort was also the scene of what may turn out to be a dress rehearsal for future battles. In December 2000, in the last days of the Clinton administration, Bruce Babbitt, then the interior secretary, visited the area as part of a personal push to create a Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction.
A bill allocating preliminary financing passed the U.S. Senate in 2003 but died in the House after opposition by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who denounced Reconstruction as a period that “victimized many South Carolinians.”
The memory of that fight is fresh on both sides. “If the Park Service is talking about opening a site to celebrate Reconstruction, we’re going to have a hard time with that,” said Jeff Antley, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Charleston who helped organize the group’s Civil War 150th commemorations, including a controversial “secession ball.”
”What was done to the South was horrible,” he said.
Allen, who brokered a conversation between the Sons and the NAACP during the dispute over the secession ball, said the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol had created “a new climate.”
But Rep. James E. Clyburn, a Democrat who represents part of Beaufort County in Congress, said a Park Service site, while “long overdue,” could meet “some resistance, maybe some significant resistance.”
”I don’t think it’s been poorly understood,” Clyburn, a former high school history teacher, said of Reconstruction. “I think it’s been intentionally misrepresented.”
Some institutions in South Carolina are working to change the picture. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, which reopened last year as a “museum of Reconstruction,” uses Wilson, who lived in the house between 1871 and 1874, to highlight the period’s positive achievements and the “political terrorism,” as the exhibition puts it, that helped roll them back.
“It’s not like we hit people over the head and tell them, ‘Everything you’ve heard about Reconstruction is wrong,’” said Fielding Freed, director of house museums for Historic Columbia. “But as people move through, you can see them thinking.”
Still, the period is a powerful negative charge for many white Southerners, including some who find inspiration in the tale of African-Americans moving to freedom.
Leading a reporter around the mostly unexcavated Mitchelville site, Randy Dolyniuk, president of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, called the town “an incredible American story that hasn’t been told,” but noted, “I personally don’t like Reconstruction.”
”In some cases, the Southern white was persecuted,” Dolyniuk said. “I’m not a historian, but I think we could’ve done it better.”
Downs, the historian, said such sentiments underscored both the importance, and the difficulty, of presenting a better public story.
“It took a lot of time and effort to establish the myths of Reconstruction,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to tear down those myths.”