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A Historian's Impact: New National Monument

Historian Gregory Downs has devoted much of his career to setting the record straight on Reconstruction—writing books, articles and an interactive website about “the most misunderstood period in U.S. history.”

But a new national park, Downs says, will go farther than any of his scholarly publications in reversing a public amnesia about the years that followed the Civil War.

With one week left in office, President Barrack Obama on Jan. 12 designated historic sites in Beaufort County, South Carolina, as the first national monument to the Reconstruction Era. 

That presidential act culminated nearly four years of efforts by Downs and colleagues. Downs co-wrote the National Park Service’s soon-to-be-published Theme Study on Reconstruction and helped edit the Park Service’s handbook on Reconstruction.

In an op-ed article in The New York Times last month, Downs and two other Civil War historians—Eric Foner of Columbia University and Kate Masur of Northwestern University—urged Obama to act in his final days as president to establish the Reconstruction monument in Beaufort.

portrait photoThe port town of Beaufort and the surrounding Sea Islands are rich in historical sites, including one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves, a church built by slaves and the home of Robert Smalls (left), a war hero and former slave who served five terms in Congress.

Downs said that he and Masur began working together for a monument in 2013—midway through the 2011-15 Civil War sesquicentennial, as it became clear that 150th anniversary events for the war would not carry over to commemoration of Reconstruction. Their efforts would bring them together with National Park Service officials, other prominent historians and Beaufort-area leaders who were trying to revive earlier efforts to create a Reconstruction park.

Reconstruction, running from the Civil War through the late 1800s, was a transformative period in American democracy, what Downs says was “a forgotten second founding of the nation.”

However, he said the era later became obscured by myths about corruption and black tyranny. “Southern white Democratic terrorists overthrew biracial governments in the South and exerted increasing influence in national politics,” he said. With support from leading northern universities and institutions, they waged “one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in U.S. history.”historical plaque

“Many people now either know nothing of Reconstruction or know a series of myths and propaganda,” Downs said. “For those of us who believe this was a crucial period of U.S. history, this is devastating, as if the Revolution were remembered solely as about people’s tea preferences.”

While historians have been rewriting that history over the past 50 years, their work has been slow in reaching the broader public, he said. “That’s where the parks come in.

“They are places where we can reach an audience we won’t reach through our books and articles, and places where children, in particular, start to ask questions about our past. We see this in Civil War parks—there are more than 70—where greater efforts to discuss slavery produce powerful responses among visitors. Now, for the first time ever we have a chance to do the same thing for Reconstruction.”