Recognizing Reconstruction: Gregory Downs

By Michael Haggerty – On January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama officially designated the first national monument recognizing the Reconstruction Era. Gregory Downs, associate professor of history at UC Davis, played an integral part in the development of that monument. Here, he explains how he came to be involved, and why he believes the project is so important.

Each year, millions of Americans visit National Military Parks at Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Vicksburg. For many Americans, these sites serve as a popular reminder of our nation’s bloody struggle to end slavery. But what came after the battles—when the cannons fell silent and the nation began to rebuild—remains largely beyond the public consciousness.

With the newly dedicated Reconstruction monument, some of the nation’s leading nineteenth-century historians hope to bring the Reconstruction Era into the mainstream of popular history. They hope to highlight this period as a moment of unfulfilled promise in American history—one defined less by corrupt northern carpetbaggers taking advantage of a war-torn South, and more by a radical, progressive change in the nation’s constitution. After all, by extending citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, the 14th Amendment changed American life forever.

In the years following the Civil War, millions of newly freed African Americans fought desperately to fulfill the promise of the 14th Amendment. The Constitution now guaranteed that as citizens they would not be deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” However, despite the revolutionary nature of the 14th Amendment, for many African Americans the Reconstruction Era was a period of intense struggle—one in which freedom would be built from the bottom up as they established schools, fought their way to the ballot box, and appealed for military protection from the Ku Klux Klan.

Sites of significance

The sites of the Reconstruction Era monument in Beaufort, South Carolina are selected to serve as a reminder of this period’s unfulfilled promise. Darrah Hall at the Penn Center, an African American cultural and educational center, was founded in 1862 and served as a school for newly freed slaves during the Civil War. The Brick Baptist Church, despite being constructed by slaves in 1855, was originally a segregated institution where slaves were forced to worship out of sight on balconies. Following the Battle of Port Royal, newly freed slaves took control of the church and established it as a place of collective worship. 

Elsewhere, the Camp Saxton Site (located in the small town of Port Royal, South Carolina) marks the spot where Union Army General Rufus Saxton publically read the Emancipation Proclamation to thousands of slaves on January 1, 1863. It also marks the site where African Americans were first assembled to join the Union Army as part of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.

Together, these sites remind us that the Reconstruction Era was a moment of possibility, when newly freed men and women strived to make their lives their own, only to face renewed bigotry and discrimination with the rise of Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century.

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How did your work with the National Park Service begin?

It began at a conference in 2013. Dr. Kate Masur and I were on a panel regarding the 25th anniversary of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. The panel was organized as a round table discussion that included several prominent nineteenth-century historians. That same year, several of these historians had been asked by various organizations to give talks about the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. As we discussed Foner's Reconstruction, several people mentioned that there would be no anniversaries or commemorations of Reconstruction. This bothered Dr. Masur and me because we believed that if historians did not commemorate Reconstruction we could not rightly expect the public to. So, we then went to Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, and asked him how we might use the anniversaries of Reconstruction to promote public memory.

How did the project transition from your meeting with Jim Grossman to the development of a National Monument with the National Park Service?

When we met with Jim Grossman, we brainstormed a number of ideas. However, Jim set us up to have a meeting with Bob Sutton, the chief historian of the National Park Service. When we met with Bob and his collaborators at the National Park Service, we quickly saw that there was a great deal of enthusiasm within the National Park Service, but some confusion about how to make the project happen. It was really a fortuitous meeting as we began to discuss the growing enthusiasm among historians regarding Reconstruction.

We soon began working with Michael Allen, the National Park’s point person on Reconstruction. The park service had become interested in Reconstruction in 2000, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt read Eric Foner's Reconstruction and began envisioning a project on the topic. It was actually Eric Foner who identified Beaufort, South Carolina as a site for remembering Reconstruction. In 2000, Foner and Babbit had developed a series of proposals for memorializing Reconstruction through the National Park Service, but unfortunately those proposals died within the internal politics of Congress, thanks in large part to the maneuvering of Congressman Joe Wilson. However, people inside the park service retained the belief that this was an important part of their goals for the park service. Many of these individuals had played a central role in incorporating slavery into the service’s interpretation of the Civil War. They wanted to focus on emancipation and Reconstruction as a necessary next step that had previously been thwarted.

How did political shifts influence the project’s evolution?

In 2008, there was an election of a president who some members of the park service believed would be receptive to the project. In 2010, because of redistricting, Beaufort moved from a district that was held by Joe Wilson to one held by Mark Sanford, also a conservative Republican, but not one with connections to neo-confederates. However, Sanford did have strong connections to Beaufort's chamber of commerce, an organization that was largely in favor of a National Park Service project. In addition to these political changes, a generation of regional historians within the park service, who had real commitments to questions about the memorializing of Reconstruction, had been groomed over time. So, when we met them, there was an ongoing reflection within the park service about how to complete this project, as well as a desire to reach out to academic historians.

As it became clear that there were concrete things that could happen in the National Park Service, our focus shifted to working with them. It seemed clear that there was an eagerness and an energy. Therefore, we brought together a group of leading historians to talk with the park service and develop themes. This lead the National Park Service to request and to gain authorization to complete the first ever National Historic Landmark Theme Study.

Following the study, Kate Masur and I worked with Bob Sutton and John Latschar to complete the first National Park handbook on Reconstruction (an edited volume that's now sold at National Park sites). All of these things had meaning in and of themselves—they were not only a prelude to creating a park. However, it was clear that the development of a park would be the ultimate sign of institutional success. It soon became apparent that there would not be legislation moving through congress. After the November election, there was a sense that if it was going to happen it had to happen between November and January. Therefore, some very important figures on the ground in Beaufort, South Carolina—including people tied to the Penn Center, the Mayor of Beaufort Billy Keyserling, and Mike Allen (a National Park Service leader in the effort)—brought together a lot of disparate institutions, creating the energy necessary for a proposal to get the monument done.

What do you see as the ultimate significance of the project?

Our feeling was that Reconstruction has always been difficult to get into the public mind. It has always been the most misunderstood period. The overthrow of the Dunning School, a neo-confederate depiction of Reconstruction, has yet to be replaced by the popular triumph of Foner’s revisionist interpretation, which celebrates the era’s accomplishments and also its unrealized potential. However, a lot of schools just don’t talk about the period and we wanted to see if it was possible to insert into public discussion a positive vision of Reconstruction—one that already existed historiographically, but had yet to become part of popular perception. 

Learn more about Gregory Downs.

Learn more about the Reconstruction Era monument.