With its four-year observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War now past, the National Park Service is turning its attention to a lesser-known period of American history: the era of Reconstruction after the war.
The agency is embarking on a yearlong study to inventory sites throughout the South and beyond that are important to telling the sometimes-bloody story of Reconstruction – a time when 4 million blacks, freed from slavery, worked to build lives as a free people.
There also was some backlash from white Southerners dealing with the Confederate defeat and coping with the end of the South’s system of slave labor.
The National Park Service is undertaking what it calls a national historic landmark theme study. It plans to identify nationally important sites dealing with the Reconstruction era from the Civil War through 1900 that could be designated national historic landmarks.
Robert Sutton, the agency’s chief historian in Washington, said the way historians view Reconstruction has changed over the years.
“The old interpretation was that it was a disaster, that they did too much too soon and people weren’t really ready and it was mostly a negative thing,” Sutton said. “In the last 50 years, the research has been the complete opposite and that it was a very progressive program that did tremendous good and the real tragedy was that it ended.”
Schools for blacks were built, blacks gained the right to own land, and some were elected to Congress, he said. But at the same time, hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan began to rise.
The study is being conducted with the help of two leading historians of the Reconstruction era – Kate Masur from Northwestern University in Chicago and Greg Downs of City University of New York.
Michael Allen, based at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site on the South Carolina coast, is one of the National Park Service staffers working with the study.
He helped conduct a similar study that led to creation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor reaching along the coast from the Carolinas to Florida. Now he’s turning his attention to Reconstruction.
“This is a reconnaissance to have an understanding of what exists, what can be researched and what can be visited,” he said. “It’s also being done to expand people’s horizons and knowledge of that time.”
Numerous South Carolina communities, including Snowden in Mount Pleasant and Liberty Hill in North Charleston, were started by freed blacks after the war, Allen said – and there are dozens of similar ones throughout the South.
The study will be wide, Sutton said, adding it also will look at sites that might be associated with the Ku Klux Klan and the backlash during Reconstruction.
“You can’t tell American history by sugarcoating it,” he said. “We have a lot of National Park Service sites now that deal with the darker side of American history.”
Several internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II are now National Park Service sites. But, Sutton said, the National Park Service has no site that focuses on the Reconstruction era.