As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer, a University of California, Davis, professor has focused on an oft-forgotten part of U.S. history that our national parks are now helping the public to understand — the Reconstruction era.
Gregory Downs, an associate professor of history, along with Kate Masur, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University, have completed a study for the National Park Service focused on the years after the Civil War. During this time, the federal government attempted to remake the nation, ultimately diminishing recognition of the roles African Americans played in the nation’s history.
Downs hopes the research will lead to new parks, or parts of existing parks, dedicated to an era that has been “easier for Americans to forget than remember.” Downs co-wrote the National Park Service’s Theme Study on Reconstruction, expected to be available in the fall, and helped edit the Park Service’s handbook on Reconstruction, which is available now.
The handbook, with editing contributions from Robert Sutton, retired chief historian of the National Park Service, and historian John Latschar, is being used now by National Park Service interpretive rangers and historians across the country as they seek to provide the public a better understanding of the era.
“I think there should be at least one and possibly several parks that are dedicated to Reconstruction,” said Downs, who has visited historic sites and talked to descendants of Reconstruction-era figures, and historians familiar with the sites. Only Congress can establish a national park, but Downs said many of the sites can be combined into existing parks.
A few ideas for park sites he has researched, explored and presented to the National Park Service include:
- Beaufort, South Carolina: The old southern port city remains largely intact, with old homes, an armory and other relevant sites. Robert Smalls, a former slave who became a sea captain and politician, was born and died there. “The town gives insight into the depth of the reconfiguration of black political life, family life on the Sea Islands, and commercial life.” A bipartisan bill recently was introduced in Congress to designate Penn Center, in the Beaufort region, as a National Monument to Reconstruction.
- Natchez, Mississippi: Already home to several historic parks, Natchez has plantations that show how lives were reconstructed after the war. Hiram Revels, the first African American in the U.S. Senate, set up his political base there.
- New Orleans, Louisiana: Site of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, which accepted “separate but equal” in 1896.
- Vicksburg, Mississippi: The area had large contraband camps on the river during the war and has a surviving courthouse, built by slaves, that sustained Union Army shelling. The courthouse has been designated a Registered National Historic Landmark.
- Memphis, Tennessee: The Memphis riots centered on an attack on decommissioned black U.S. soldiers leading to days of terror.
“One of the things that has been rewarding to us in visiting these places is meeting the people who know the local history,” Downs said. “People have long been frustrated that events were not remembered or misremembered. We can help tell those stories.”
In completing his research in libraries, archives and museums across the south, Downs pored over many crumbling historic documents — some still tied in the red strings in which they were bundled and stored, unopened since they were first created. Downs said his quest to remember Reconstruction correctly and appropriately is not new, but he hopes to build on the research and help others who have the same goal.
“Many people have this sense that we had to do something about this. What we hope to do is provide aid to entities that want to commemorate these events and these people.”
Builds on other Civil Rights Era literature
Historians’ understanding of Reconstruction changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century, according to the National Park Service, but current scholarship on the period has been slow to enter public consciousness. Discredited legends of “carpetbaggers,” “scalawags,” and other corrupt individuals and practices often stand in place of historical fact. The handbook seeks to address those discrepancies. The Reconstruction era handbook builds on previously published handbooks on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Era.