- Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America's Most Turbulent Era eds. by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker
W. Fitzhugh Brundage introduces this superb volume by observing that the "search for the meaning of Reconstruction" was "one of the major American cultural projects" of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (8). Scholars, journalists, politicians, and activists struggled to interpret the tumultuous post–Civil War period, often with one eye on contemporary debates and the other on the past. Since conflicts over race, citizenship, and power roiled American politics long after 1877, memories of Reconstruction remained relevant and contentious. The ten essays in this valuable collection trace Reconstruction's enduringly divisive legacy down to the present.
Editors Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker divide the book into four parts. The essays in Part I focus on white-supremacist memories of Reconstruction and explore how specters of the past energized the defense of racial hierarchies in the present. K. Stephen Prince shows that southern reactionaries weaponized Reconstruction history. By attributing the disasters of Reconstruction to allegedly inferior black southerners and meddlesome northerners, the architects of Jim Crow legitimized segregation and disfranchisement. Similar memories retained political potency amid the convulsive changes wrought by the New Deal. Jason Morgan Ward demonstrates that southern leaders braced to resist a potential Second Reconstruction by drawing on lessons handed down from the first.
Part II foregrounds the varied counternarratives crafted by African Americans, who rejected racist distortions but did not unite behind one alternative account. In his essay on editor and poet T. Thomas Fortune, Shawn Leigh Alexander examines how stories of racist violence and black survival during Reconstruction inspired resistance to Jim Crow brutality. But other counternarratives were also useful. In a fascinating study of freedman-turned-Republican John R. Lynch, Justin Behrend shows that the [End Page 137] ex-congressman's influential The Facts of Reconstruction (1913) downplayed violence to craft a hopeful story of moderate interracial cooperation. And as Carole Emberton argues, scholars should not discount the darker stories about emancipation and Reconstruction contained in the Works Progress Administration interviews of former slaves. Hannah Irwin's testimony garbles many facts but reveals the strategic pragmatism with which freedpeople navigated Reconstruction and survived Jim Crow and the Depression.
Memories of Reconstruction remained vibrant as the United States extended its continental and global reach. Mark Elliott opens Part III by showing that the zealous reformers who attended the Lake Mohonk conferences of 1890 and 1891 applied lessons from Reconstruction to pressing current questions. Committed to an abstract egalitarianism but convinced that equal treatment invited disaster, they accepted black disenfranchisement and called for the "uplift" of American Indians and of colonized peoples in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Notions of uplift informed Progressive-era reformers within the South as well. As Natalie J. Ring demonstrates, Progressives defined southern blacks and poor whites as domestic colonial subjects to be rescued from barbarism through a new and improved Reconstruction based on benevolence rather than more fundamental change. Similarly cautious idealism, argues Samuel L. Schaffer, shaped Woodrow Wilson's course at Versailles. Steeped in racist Reconstruction mythology, Wilson vowed not to impose a harsh peace on the Central Powers or to offer self-determination to allegedly inferior peoples in Africa and the Middle East.
Part IV extends the analysis past the Civil Rights era. In an outstanding essay on textbook depictions of the Ku Klux Klan, Elaine Parsons reveals surprising continuities from the 1880s to the present. Interpretations have shifted from romanticizing to condemnation, but modern accounts continue to sensationalize Klan activities, cast blacks as passive victims, isolate the Klan from other forces of oppression, and obscure other types of racist violence. Bruce E. Baker strikes a guardedly hopeful tone in analyzing South Carolina remembrance of Reconstruction during the state's tricentennial celebration in 1970. Amid a period of economic and social progress, the deep-rooted racist narrative of Reconstruction waned and has not fully returned.
The study of social memory, often applied to...