Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Reconstruction in Public History and Memory Sesquicentennial

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Reconstruction in Public History and Memory Sesquicentennial

Article excerpt

The public memory of Reconstruction has long been a complex and fraught subject in the United States. But where do we stand now, and what will Reconstruction's sesquicentennial entail? What issues confront scholars, civil rights advocates, public history practitioners, and teachers devoted to deepening conversations about Reconstruction? What opportunities does Reconstruction's sesquicentennial present?

The following discussion of those questions took place from May 2 to May 22, 2016, through a secure webpage that allowed the moderator and the participants to post comments and questions in sequence. The moderator and the journal's editors edited the completed conversation for length, in consultation with the participants. This final version has been condensed slightly for the readers' benefit, while maintaining the open-ended and free-flowing nature of the original conversation.

DAVID M. PRIOR, assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, served as moderator.

NANCY BERCAW is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

BEVERLY BOND is associate professor of history at the University of Memphis and the codirector of the Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866 project.

THOMAS J. BROWN is professor history at the University of South Carolina and has served on Historic Columbia's interpretation committee for the Woodrow Wilson Family Home since 2006.

ERIC FONER is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, among many other works.

JENNIFER TAYLOR is staff attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama.

SALAMISHAH TILLET is associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination.

DP: We are in the early stages of the sesquicentennial of the complex and divisive period in American history known as Reconstruction. In your own perspectives, what is most striking about this commemorative moment? What is it about Reconstruction's sesquicentennial that stands out to you as you engage with the public, research, advocate, and teach?

TB: I'm struck by the number of people, if mostly academics, calling attention to the anniversary. I don't think the centennial of the Progressive Era generated comparable emphasis on the period, as distinct from individual landmarks like adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment. Promotion of the Reconstruction anniversary doubtless represents in part a pushback against some tendencies of Civil War commemoration. It stresses that the big story didn't end at Appomattox. It suggests that Reconstruction was a broadly transformative moment and a demonstration of potential that the country has not yet realized.

JT: It is striking how deep and pervasive the legacies of that era's developments--including advancements, failures, and missed opportunities-continue to be. At the same time, this period is not widely understood for how it has shaped our world. Its lessons should be a foundation for understanding some of the most difficult problems we now face. It is encouraging to see efforts among academics, agencies like the National Park Service (NPS), and some community coalitions to mark and discuss the 150th anniversary of events like the Memphis Massacre of 1866, the development of Black Codes, and the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments with explicit exceptions for the criminally convicted. We have to expand this work among community members and increase public consciousness to change the narrative around what this history means and what we can learn from it.

At the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI;, we see the links between Reconstruction-era events, laws, and the current challenge of mass incarceration as at once clear and under-discussed. …

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