- Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era eds. by Carol Emberton and Bruce E. Baker
Americans, influenced by race, region, politics, and time, have developed a problematic, sometimes unmindful, but enduring relationship with Reconstruction. Indeed, even as the nation moves through the era's sesquicentennial years, Reconstruction's memories arguably have a greater influence over a wider stretch of American life than do the more dramatic events of the preceding Civil War years. Scratch the surface of controversies over modern voter identification laws or the removal [End Page 105] of a New Orleans monument erected in 1891 to commemorate an earlier street battle, and the lingering impact of Reconstruction, with its contested memories, becomes apparent. It has been so since the 1870s, as the essays in Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era, edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce Baker, prove. As W. Fitzhugh Brundage notes in his introduction, the essays in this volume support the idea that ultimately, despite the efforts of Union veterans, African Americans, and their allies, sectional reconciliation meant conceding to a historical memory of Reconstruction constructed by white southerners.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Brundage explains, interpretations of Reconstruction influenced the answers to important questions about "the rights of citizens, the measure of patriotism, and the appropriate exercise of national power in the century after Appomattox" (5). For example, K. Stephen Prince's exploration of white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow describes how deftly and shamelessly southerners used Reconstruction memories to restrict black citizenship. Jason Morgan Ward examines how disenfranchisement supported by the poll tax, a bulwark of white supremacy, failed to yield to the circumstances produced by World War II. Recalling carpetbaggers and nineteenth-century civil rights legislation, the possibility of outside interference proved as frightening to white southerners as a black man holding a ballot during the Reconstruction era. Both authors show how white southerners used what they consider to have been misguided northern efforts to intervene in their post–Civil War affairs to derail subsequent federal efforts to protect the rights of black Americans.
It appears that no area of policy could escape the influence of Reconstruction's memory. Mark Elliot explores how white understanding of the era spilled over into debates concerning Native Americans and imperialism during the 1890s. In the process, he adds an interesting point about the nature of Progressive Era gradualism in matters of race advancement. "If Reconstruction and black suffrage were not entirely right," Elliot notes white reasoning, "perhaps slavery was not entirely wrong" (159). Shortly thereafter, in the early twentieth century, President Woodrow Wilson's approach to the peace issues of the Great War, as Samuel L. Schaffer explains, meant having a southern born-and-bred historian attempting to influence the Allies' handling of victory, defeat, and European reconstruction. As Schaffer rightly notes, Wilson had complex views of the issue, but he also "held true to his belief that a punitive peace was detrimental to a lasting peace" (211). Reconstruction taught many Americans such a lesson.
Americans settled on a peculiarly white southern memory of Reconstruction, but the editors have not failed to include efforts to construct an alternative useable past. Shawn Leigh Alexander's work on T. Thomas Fortune and Justin Behrend's [End Page 106] study of John R. Lynch, for example, examine the efforts of African Americans to further a different interpretation of Reconstruction. Carole Emberton's contribution, dealing with the Federal Writers' Project ex-slave narratives, adds the perspective of what not too long ago would have been an unheard voice. In the process, she shows that an unreliable narrator—in this case, an elderly black woman who contributed her memories to the Federal Writers' Project ex-slave narratives—left behind a valuable record of the black sense of Reconstruction, even if the details she recalled "do not always conform to historians' expectations" (132). Elaine Parson...