America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War

By Jones, Norrece T., Jr. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War


Jones, Norrece T., Jr., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War. Exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, sponsored jointly by the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine Museum. ERIC FONER and OLIVIA MAHONEY, Curators. GREGG KIMBALL, Staff Historian. BARBARA BATSON and GILES CROMWELL, Collection Managers. DALE KOSTELNY, Installation Manager. JAMES C. KELLY and KAREN LUETJEN, Project Managers. THRESHOLD STUDIO, Alexandria, Va., Design. JAMES SIMS, Production Designer. PATRICK RoGAN, Art Director. JEANNE KROHN, Graphic Designer. URSULA MARCUM, Project Coordinator. ExPLuS, INC., Dulles, Va., Fabrication. Supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the City of Richmond. 21 March-1 October 1996.

America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War. By ERIC FONER and OLIVIA MAHONEY. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995. 151 pp. $17.50 paper.

FEW periods in American history have sparked as much debate or inflamed individual and regional passions as has Reconstruction. This controversy may explain why the approximately fourteen years beginning during the Civil War and ending in 1877 are only now being explored in a major exhibition. Through hundreds of artifacts, images, sounds, and texts, guest curators Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, and Olivia Mahoney, the curator of industrial and decorative arts at the Chicago Historical Society, with their colleagues at the Valentine Museum and the Virginia Historical Society, have brought to life a tumultuous era.

The theme of this collaborative exhibition is the undeclared but relentless war over the place of blacks in post-Civil War America. Nothing less than a revolution was at the heart of Reconstruction, and its battles constituted what the curators consider America's first experiment in interracial democracy. With tens of thousands dead and the South devastated physically, economically, and socially (at least from the perspective of those committed to slavery and the permanent subordination of blacks to whites), reunion was challenging in a war-torn nation that had not yet survived its one hundredth birthday.

Viewers relive Reconstruction in an eerily lit two-chambered exhibition hall that suggests both the dawn of a new civilization and the Civil War that triggered it. One enters this world hearing distant sounds of crackling logs, charging horses, gunfire, and soldiers marching. Ingeniously designed by Threshold Studio, dark wood display cases are surrounded by scaffolding and dangling ropes that provocatively evoke a sense of ruins and rebuilding as well as gallows and nooses. The voices, recollections, and experiences of both little-known and prominent contemporaries are recreated in a rich array of artifacts and illustrations. These include newspaper postings of "Information Wanted" by former slaves in search of family members who had been sold away while in bondage and the mourning attire of Confederate women determined never to forget the heroism of the men who sacrificed all to preserve their way of life. Crated sound stations on which one can sit (and listen privately with headphones) contain compelling dialogues that highlight the radically different meanings of Reconstruction to those who personally experienced it. …

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