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What Reconstruction Meant Historical Memory in the American South (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 107-109 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0033

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A flourishing cottage industry customarily called "memory studies" is now thrusting into its third decade. This well-researched volume makes a useful contribution to the field as well as to our understanding of southern culture. The author rightly declares that "social memory is one of the key elements that constitutes social groups; social groups tend to share an understanding of their common past, though not, as we will see, without dissenting voices" (7). Baker's approach rests upon three "enthymematic" ideas that range from assumptions to assertions. First, that oral tradition on the local level provides a basis for social memory. Second, that distinguishing between memories in public and private discourse permits a better picture of the range of social memories and their interconnectedness. And third, that when social memory becomes dominant in social discourse readers must also be aware of counter-memories. In this monograph devoted primarily to South Carolina, with occasional references to Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, the dominant social memory, only beginning to fade during the 1970s, was a white supremacist narrative of Reconstruction following the Civil War.

Baker declares at the outset that he will keep oral tradition at the center of his project because doing so makes it easier to get a "balanced view of social memory across the breadth of society without giving undue emphasis to the well-educated middle class" (8). He reaffirms this point in a long concluding paragraph: people in the South, until at least the last third of the twentieth century, "received their most basic grounding in the region's history and in their personal connection to that history not from mass media, not from public education, but from stories related by members of their immediate communities, starting with the extended family" (170). The allure of that emphasis might suggest the approach of a folklore scholar, but as it turns out the author relies heavily upon printed primary sources and historiographical ones, ranging from non-academic books to printed speeches and newspapers, and more recently to the influence of professional works by such figures as C. Vann Woodward. Baker most certainly makes good on his effort to look at what was said and done in various Carolina localities, but his materials are very much top-down. We take it on faith that the populace at large shared the shifting views articulated by their social betters and the literati, and for the most part persuasively so.

At the heart of the dominant narrative is the view that Reconstruction (1865-77) was a disastrous failure because a combination of incompetent freedmen and carpetbaggers ran South Carolina disastrously, and only when Wade Hampton became governor in 1876 and federal troops left the state soon after could "normalcy" return and the "right sorts" of people gain control—meaning white Democrats and subsequently dictatorial demagogues like Pitchfork Ben Tillman and "Cotton Ed" Smith. By the close of the nineteenth century and the new state constitution of 1895, African Americans had been totally disfranchised and remained so until the Civil Rights acts of the mid-1960s.

What Baker delivers in detail to freshen that familiar trajectory is the role of so-called Red Shirts as the emblematic force behind the Redeemer movement in South Carolina, overturning the so-called Bourbon dominance during Reconstruction and utilizing Hampton's professed desire to care for all his people, black and white, as an excuse for maintaining a rigidly hierarchical power structure. In the process Baker skillfully interweaves a valuable political history of the state during the century following 1876, with close attention to the persistence of black counter-memories. The latter were highlighted on Decoration Day late in May, whereas whites celebrated their version on Memorial Day earlier in the month.

Some readers may question the author's contention that his work provides a representative study because South Carolina was the "crucible of Reconstruction, bringing together many of its most powerful features in their most concentrated form" (10). Many might argue that the creed of white supremacy linked to the Lost Cause had its most intense manifestations in the Palmetto State, and that comparable studies are now needed to examine social memories elsewhere in the South in order...



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