Is a Public Memory of Reconstruction Possible?

The New York Times has a feature up today in which they ask a group of historians to reflect on how Reconstruction ought to be remembered. There are some interesting suggestions to consider from the importance of acknowledging “Juneteenth” to preserving historic sites on Hilton Head island to recognizing the importance of strong voting rights legislation.

What I find interesting is the way in which these individual reflections are introduced:

As Americans deal with some of the same racial issues that tore apart the nation then, how should we commemorate Reconstruction and what can be done to create a public memory of it?

What exactly does it mean to ‘create a public memory’ of Reconstruction 150 years later? More importantly, is it possible?

16 comments… add one
  • Christian McWhirter May 26, 2015

    I’ll stay away from the first question, but I can definitely answer the second:

    Sure it’s possible. Hollywood films “re-create” historical memory all the time. I was teaching Western Civ back when 300 came out and suddenly a huge number of my students were interested in Sparta and the Persian Wars. What’s more, it was clear the movie had created a completely new (largely sensationalized) narrative of what happened at Thermopylae that, at least for a few years, absolutely represented the popular memory of that event. We could argue Braveheart did the same thing for William Wallace and that the popular memory fostered by that film is still the dominant one.

    Reconstruction might be a different case and I can come up with at least two reasons why. 1. No one promoting this public memory has the cultural power of Hollywood (unless Hollywood gets on board itself), so creating a new public history with say the NPS as the driving force might be a taller order. 2. As the article suggests, Reconstruction has a lot of clear implications for our current time, so it might be a lot messier to foster a public narrative that could gain wide acceptance. The vast majority of people probably don’t think about Reconstruction at all and those who do tend to adopt whichever narrative best supports their current worldview (like say, Neo-Confederates with the Dunning School).

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2015

      Thanks for the comment. I see a problem with falling back on Hollywood in reference to this second question. Braveheart was certainly a popular movie, but I highly doubt that even half of my students has ever seen it. My point is that whatever a public memory of Reconstruction or any historical period involves it has to have reach beyond a single generation. Gone With the Wind did, but only as part of a collective memory that was already in place by the 1930s.

      I see the NPS and even most of the short reflections linked to in the post as promoting education as opposed to the creation and maintenance of memory.

      • Ben Allen May 27, 2015

        “Braveheart was certainly a popular movie, but I highly doubt that even half of my students has ever seen it.” I have many friends and acquaintances in my age group, people who do not have any recollection of 1995, who have seen that movie. Of course, your students are younger than me. Then again, you might be surprised. I would not be surprised if a little less than half of them have seen it, and even more have heard of it or seen parts of it on TV. 🙂

        • Kevin Levin May 27, 2015

          Of course, your students are younger than me. Then again, you might be surprised.

          You might be surprised by how little they know about popular culture in the mid 1990s. I am basing my assumption on a good deal of interaction with students concerning Hollywood movies, etc. I am in my mid-40s and am considered ancient by the vast majority of my students.

  • John Hennessy May 26, 2015

    The natural process of memory-making is at best a subconsciously selective process. One can only imagine what a conscious process of memory-making will look like. It will surely be interesting to watch.

    I’m involved in an interpretive initiative that will look at Reconstruction and beyond. One of the challenges we face that differentiates this effort from the Civil War’s “Holding the High Ground” is that there is virtually no public demand for such programming. We have had conversations about how to create that demand. That, thankfully, with all its Madison Ave implications, is a different thing than creating a public memory.

    I think.

    • Kevin Levin May 26, 2015

      Hi John,

      That is certainly an interesting dynamic, but I wonder to what extent it is welcome given the emotional connection that many stakeholders have regarding how Civil War sites are interpreted by the NPS.

      We have had conversations about how to create that demand.

      We’ve had conversations about attracting more African Americans to Civil War sites, but you’ve always come back by emphasizing the priority of doing good history. I have always interpreted this as a clear indication that the question of how to attract the general public falls largely on the shoulders of others.

      You guys are forging new ground. Good luck, John.

  • Pat Young May 27, 2015

    Well, it was with some trepidation that I put up my first Reconstruction post on The Immigrants’ Civil War blog. Since many of the 7,000 members of my facebook community have profile pictures of themselves in reenactors uniforms, I thought there might be a lot of resistance to a shift towards the post–war period. The fact that the article included the word nigg@r a couple of times seemed likely to compound the problem.

    I had exactly one person quit the page because he now perceived a “northern” bias on my part. On the other hand, according to google analytics, the article is outperforming every other new article I posted this year.

    Still too early to tell how long Reconstruction will keep my readers interested. Maybe people are willing to read a few articles, but will feel sated then. Also, as later articles will include stuff like the Irish in the Memphis Riots, I may lose some folks when immigrants are part of the villainous class. On the other hand, I was surprised two years ago that my Draft Riot series was very popular because it was frank in assessing Irish racism. So maybe I can hold the readers.

    I think that a lot of Americans who hold pretty racially egalitarian views have a very vague view of why ending slavery did not end racism. They may be hungry for factual info on a period that has long had a veil drawn over it.

    I am committed to making a quarter of the new Immigrants’ Civil War articles over the next two years be about Reconstruction. It would be good if other Civil War bloggers devoted some substantial effort to telling the post–war story.

    If the period seems depressing, the 14th Amendment is one of the shining legacies of the Reconstruction.

    • Kevin Levin May 27, 2015

      Great to hear, Pat.

      Still too early to tell how long Reconstruction will keep my readers interested.

      As long as it is interesting/compelling your readers will continue to visit.

  • Ben Allen May 27, 2015

    Don’t worry. There is already a “public memory.” It is full of villainous carpetbaggers and an oppressive Federal government, a North seeking vengeance for the assassination of Old Abe, who, so this school goes, would have been benevolent to the South had he lived longer. You can see it thanks to D.W. Griffith and David O. Selznick.

    To correct this bunch of Lost Cause bunk, you need a movie. A movie on U.S. Grant might be good, or one on Major Lewis Merrill’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convict Klansmen in York County, South Carolina. Alternatively, a story in which Klansmen are brought to justice could also make a fine movie… provided that it is at least based on fact.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2015

      To correct this bunch of Lost Cause bunk, you need a movie.

      I don’t think any movie(s) can do that. The continued hold of the Lost Cause is the result of many factors over time.

      • Ben Allen May 30, 2015

        Movies can go a long way in correcting misconceptions. True, they cannot be the sole means in doing so, but their contribution to historiography is perhaps the greatest, at least where the general public is concerned. Not even the prose of Homer, David McCullough, or Laura Hillenbrand, let alone Eric Foner, can come close to matching the power of the motion picture.

        Yes, many factors over time have been involved. However, Selznick’s folly, not to mention _The Birth of a Nation_, shares much of the responsibility for perpetuating the Lost Cause. Indeed, most Lost Causers’ knowledge of the American Civil War and Reconstruction is largely derived from _Gone with the Wind_.

        • Kevin Levin May 31, 2015

          I am not denying the importance of movies. What I am suggesting is that both Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation were the result of a widely held view of the war and Reconstruction. Neither was attempting to correct misconceptions or introduce a new narrative.

          • Ben Allen May 31, 2015

            Yes, those movies were expressing “a widely held view of the war and Reconstruction.” They were confirmation bias to much of their audiences.

            We already have a different narrative contradicting the Lost Cause in historical literature. However, if you want to bring these interpretations to a wider audience, movies are the way to go. Popular history is an important, if more or less distant, second.

  • Jimmy Dick May 28, 2015

    I think the opportunity to teach about Reconstruction with facts to a receptive audience is here. Looking at the racism still in America we see that this is a subject that begs for discussion. Understanding Reconstruction can go a long way to answering the questions about the lingering racism in this country. I also think this may generate a bigger fight because this is going to challenge the beliefs of many people who prefer a whitewashed version of the past.

    I am heartened though because many of those same people have tried to prop up the lost cause and failed to do so.

  • Hugh Lawson May 30, 2015

    What is wrong with David Blight’s version?

  • Hugh Lawson Jun 1, 2015

    Isn’t there already a public national memory of reconstruction, as follows?

    “We” the nation defeated the South, but failed in reconstruction, because we were too easy on the white south. “We” should have used just force to make “them” abide by the terms of the Civil Rights Act, and the reconstruction amendments.

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