Reconstructing Era after Civil War: Richmond Exhibit Explores the Politics and the People of the Time

By Dean, Mensah | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 10, 1996 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Era after Civil War: Richmond Exhibit Explores the Politics and the People of the Time


Dean, Mensah, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


RICHMOND - If ever there was one period and place that came close to experiencing both the best of times and the worst of times, the Reconstruction years in the United States would be a clear contender. A murky follow-up act to the Civil War, Reconstruction (1865-1877) was the government's plan to redevelop the crushed South.

The result was the first public schools in the South, many of the first black colleges and churches, the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the first black voters and political officeholders. But just as real and lasting, the Reconstruction years produced the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies that spread like wildfire throughout the South in opposition to the new status of former slaves.

With threats, beatings and murders, they, in effect, stripped blacks of their new freedoms, such as the right to vote and even the ability to walk down sidewalks at the same time as whites.

Ironically, nearly 120 years later, the first major exhibit focusing on the terror and tyranny of those years has come to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

"America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War" is co-sponsored by the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine museum.

Some 250 objects - from clothes to cartoons - have been gathered from 35 museums and libraries, including the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, to give viewers a sense of Reconstruction - the period and the program.

"As long as racial issues continue to be important in our country, this exhibit could be relevant at any time," says James Kelly, assistant director of the Virginia Historical Society, where the exhibit will be housed through Oct. 1.

"It helps us to understand what did and didn't happen, what promises of the Civil War were fulfilled and which ones weren't."

Some of those promises remain unfulfilled, says Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor and co-curator of the exhibit.

"Affirmative action and race relations, these issues are on the agenda today, and they originated as political problems in Reconstruction. So I really feel that you can't understand how America got to be where it is today without starting in the Reconstruction period."

But to understand Reconstruction itself, the truth must first be ferreted out from a mound of misconceptions and myths. One of the grandest myths, Mr. Kelly says, is that Reconstruction was a failure due largely to black voters and corrupt black politicians.

Like a tornado, that myth, started by bitter Southerners, swirled through the years, getting larger by word of mouth, the written word and finally, in the 20th century, by way of motion pictures.

The first full-length American film, D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915), glorified the Ku Klux Klan and depicted blacks as evil.

"We're trying to make the argument in this exhibit that, yes, there was corruption, but that has to be looked at in context. These were the days when New York City was run by the Boss Tweed ring, which was skimming off hundreds of millions of dollars, making the stuff in the South look penny ante," Mr. Kelly says.

The exhibit's items are kept in glass cases to help ensure their survival so that those not yet born can learn about the era from which the items came. Together they form a cogent collection, some slightly rusted, some browned by time, others in near-perfect condition. Straight out of Lincoln County, Tenn., comes a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, draped over a 6-foot-tall mannequin holding a rope in one hand. Hanging by the figure's side is a banner depicting a dragon, above which is a Latin motto that bigots used when referring to blacks: "Because it always is, because it is everywhere, because it is abominable."

Oddly, the Klan robe is not white, but brown, as early Klan members were not particular about their evening attire. …

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