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Essays show Reconstruction memories malleable

Artwork of the Celebration of Emancipation Day near Citadel Square in Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 8, 1877. Americans remembered Reconstruction as a distinct era – whether as the jubilant moment of emancipation, a launching pad for true equality for blacks, or as a distressing historical aberration, one never to be repeated.
Artwork of the Celebration of Emancipation Day near Citadel Square in Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 8, 1877. Americans remembered Reconstruction as a distinct era – whether as the jubilant moment of emancipation, a launching pad for true equality for blacks, or as a distressing historical aberration, one never to be repeated. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1908 Mississippi cotton planter Alfred Holt Stone asked, “What, then, is this thing which we call ‘Reconstruction?’ ” Like most white Southerners of his day, he looked back nostalgically to the Old South and considered the post-Civil War years an orgy of black corruption, turmoil and turbulence. Emancipation had proven disastrous, Stone averred. Free black laborers were inefficient and were dying off. Stone experimented with replacing them with Italian immigrants, but, according to the great black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, they proved “too handy with the knife.”

In “Remembering Reconstruction,” editors Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, who teach at SUNY-Buffalo and Newcastle University, respectively, gather excellent essays that examine Reconstruction’s contested memory from the Jim Crow to the post-civil rights era. The authors probe how Americans defined Reconstruction in autobiographies, meetings of reformers, community commemorative celebrations, textbooks, New Deal-era oral history interviews with ex-slaves and literature. Reconstruction’s history proved, Natalie J. Ring says, “malleable and dynamic.”

Americans remembered Reconstruction as a distinct era – whether as the jubilant moment of emancipation, a launching pad for true equality for blacks, or as a distressing historical aberration, one never to be repeated. Reconstruction, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage, provided “a useable past” – a “salient to pressing debates regarding ... the rights of citizens, the measure of patriotism, and the appropriate exercise of national power in the century after Appomattox.” Americans of all stripes looked to Reconstruction for lessons concerning segregation, disfranchisement, government activism, even colonial rule and world war. Brundage considers understanding Reconstruction “one of the major American cultural projects of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.”

As K. Stephen Prince argues, Jim Crow-era white Southerners remembered Reconstruction vividly and partisanly. It constituted a decidedly “tragic era” for them. Reconstruction “served as a sort of cultural inoculation against further federal interventionism.” Jason Morgan Ward writes that even during the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, white Southerners applied the lessons learned during Reconstruction and appropriated them to contemporary racial politics, including defeating anti-poll tax legislation. “If their fathers had built a new racial caste system in the wake of emancipation and enfranchisement, then black activists and their allies could tear it down.”

Not surprisingly, African Americans had a counter memory of Reconstruction. The fiery ex-slave journalist T. Thomas Fortune employed the history of Reconstruction to mobilize his readers against the racial violence and proscriptions of Jim Crow America. Shawn Leigh Alexander notes that “Fortune’s counter-public discourse” on Reconstruction underscored “the resiliency of the black community” in the midst of white “brutality and terrorism.” In 1913 John R. Lynch, the former slave turned influential Republican politician, published “The Facts of Reconstruction,” determined to reveal Reconstruction’s “other side.” Lynch’s book, Justin Behrend writes, failed to convince whites “to rethink the Reconstruction era, but it did quench the thirst of many African Americans looking for a firm rebuke to the prevailing white supremacist versions of southern history.”

Despite attempts by black writers to counter what Mark Elliott terms “the searing sense of aggrievement among white Southerners for all they had been forced to endure” under federal rule, the “tragic era” interpretation of Reconstruction dominated American thought until the modern civil rights revolution. In 1944 Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal observed that the literature on Reconstruction “has, until recently, responded ... to this popular demand of the American whites for rationalization and national comfort.”

Always insightful, Du Bois remarked incisively in 1935 that “the chief witness in Reconstruction, the emancipated slave himself, has been almost barred from court.”

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. He recently published “Interpreting American History: Reconstruction.”

History

“Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era”

Edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker

Louisiana State University Press, 296 pages

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