Annual Meeting Preview: "Reconstruction at 150: Reassessing the Revolutionary New Birth of Freedom"
This session takes place on Thursday, April 4 at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration, and the OAH Community College Committee
Chair: Orville Vernon Burton, American South, Clemson University
Commentator: Brent Morris, University of South Carolina, Beaufort
The Centennial Exhibition: A Battleground for Reconstruction
Krista Kinslow, Boston University
Periodizing Lynching, Contextualizing Violence
Mari Crabtree, College of Charleston
Mark Twain and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction
J Mills Thornton, Univ of Michigan
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Reconstruction At 150: Reassessing The Revolutionary New Birth Of Freedom
This panel consists of contributing authors to the forthcoming anthology Reconstruction at 150: Reassessing the Revolutionary “New Birth of Freedom,” co-edited by panel chair Vernon Burton and commentator Brent Morris for the Nation Divided: Studies in the Civil War Era series of the UVA Press.
The Reconstruction Era was literally a period of rebuilding—it entailed the reshaping of the ideologies of the defeated Old South and the physical re-construction of the region so desolated by the ravages of war, and, as a nation, developing policies that thoroughly remade and modernized America and laid the foundation for the "Second Reconstruction"—the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and 60s. Still, sandwiched as it is between the dramas of the Civil War and the Jim Crow era, Reconstruction suffers as one of the most understudied and misunderstood periods in American history. Part of this misunderstanding is due to the history’s complexity, and scholars’ interpretations of the period have varied widely. The public has largely ignored the history rather than grapple with interpretations, and the past four decades of Reconstruction scholarship have had little impact upon the ways most Americans understand the period. Outdated stereotypes endure because of the persistent appearance of outdated points of view in popular culture and contemporary political discourse as well as the challenges of teaching the period in schools. As we mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, the era remains a challenge because there are few other periods in American history where such a wide gap exists between scholarly understanding and public consciousness.
Yet the story of Reconstruction is a tale of a pivotal period in the nation’s history where a generation of African Americans were active agents in shaping the era’s history rather than simply a “problem” confronting white society. Moreover, despite lasting but a handful of years and ultimately falling short of reformers’ ambitious initial goals, Reconstruction remains one of the most relevant periods of study for contemporary Americans. A confluence of events including the June 2015 Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston by a white supremacist who unabashedly touted the main tenets of the Lost Cause, the resulting removal of the Confederate battle flag from the SC Statehouse grounds, the spotlight social media has shone on continuing racial inequalities through the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction have initiated a new thirst for a thorough understanding of the postwar years where echoes of these issues were first debated. Indeed, the most important issues at the front of American politics today—citizenship and voting rights, the relative power of state and federal governments, proper responses to terrorism—are all “Reconstruction questions.” In the introduction to the most recent edition of his classic book Reconstruction, historian Eric Foner stresses that as long as these matters remain central to our society, so too must an accurate understanding of the Reconstruction era inform those inquiries. These are not simply esoteric pursuits for historians or political scientists, but moral questions at the heart of American society. “Whatever the ebb and flow of historical interpretations,” Foner appeals to a new generation of readers, “I hope we never lose sight of the fact that something very important for the future of our society was taking place during Reconstruction.”
Interestingly, there were some scholars who wondered whether the post-bellum era might diminish as a fertile field of inquiry since Foner’s work seemed such a definitive treatment of the subject. However, Foner’s synthesis did not smother the field, but rather provided a foundation for unprecedented further research into aspects of Reconstruction he could only touch upon, each with its own rich historiography. Indeed, Reconstruction scholarship of the past two decades has grown steadily. The essays included in the anthology from which the papers of this session were drawn represent cutting edge new work in what the editors believe will be some of the most dynamic new directions in which the next generation of scholarship will develop. Three directions are featured here: conceptualization of idea of “Reconstruction,” contemporary cultural treatment of the era, and the intellectual history of the postwar years. First Krista Kinslow (Boston University) delves into the intellectual history of the post-war era in her essay “The Centennial Exhibition: A Battleground for Reconstruction.” Mari N. Crabtree (College of Charleston) calls for a scholarly re-orientation of perspective in “Periodizating Lynching, Contextualizing Violence.” J. Mills Thornton (emeritus, University of Michigan) considers Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as an allegory about the missed possibilities of Reconstruction in “Mark Twain and the Failure of Radical Reconstruction.” Editors Orville Vernon Burton and J. Brent Morris anchor this panel as Chair and Commentator, respectively.
Brent Morris, University of South Carolina, Beaufort