Reconstructing Reconstruction: Post-Bellum Public History in the Smithsonian and National Park Systems

The left image, from ‘Through The African American Lens’ at the National Museum of American History, outlines the building of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, while the right image is from ‘Freedom Just Around The Corner’ at the National Postal Museum.

The left image, from Through the African American Lens at the National Museum of American History, outlines the building of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, while the right image is from Freedom Just Around the Corner at the National Postal Museum.

In a September 2012 piece for the Washington Post, historian Lonnie G. Bunch described the “period immediately after the Civil War” as “a period of uncertainty,” when “men, women and children who emerged from bondage built schools, developed communities and ‘made a way out of no way.’” Making a Way Out of No Way will also be the title of one of the eleven exhibits at the newest branch of the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for which Dr. Bunch serves as director and which is set to open in September 2016 after a dozen years of collective curatorial efforts and decades of political pressure. The initial idea to build a museum to honor the contributions of African Americans was approved by President Coolidge in the 1920s but derailed by the Depression. Indeed, even after winning a new legislative authorization in 2003, the museum experienced difficulties acquiring artifacts and construction delays pushed back the public unveiling for more than a year. This year, 2016, also seems like an appropriate time to open the doors of the NMAAHC as it is the sesquicentennial of the start of Reconstruction, an era undergoing a re-examination through scholarly conferences such as the upcoming Gettysburg College Civil War Institute on “Reconstruction and the Legacy of the War.” Moreover, the persistence of myths about Reconstruction, which James Loewen discussed in a recent Washington Post op-ed, may even become an issue in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary race.

The left image, from ‘Through The African American Lens’, includes artifacts from a California boardinghouse owned by the Suggs family in the 1880s, while the right image, from ‘American Stories’ at the National Museum of American History, portrays “black politicians during Reconstruction”.

The left image, from Through the African American Lens, includes artifacts from a California boardinghouse owned by the Suggs family in the 1880s, while the right image, from American Stories at the National Museum of American History, portrays “black politicians during Reconstruction.”

The upcoming opening of the NMAAHC also offers a timely opportunity to evaluate how existing branches of the Smithsonian represent the era of Reconstruction, a period about which public opinion “matters more than most historical subjects” because “it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be,” according to historian Eric Foner in a March 2015 op-ed in the New York Times. The National Museum of American History currently showcases artifacts from the permanent collections of the NMAAHC in an exhibit entitled Through the African American Lens (the ninth display involving objects from the not-yet open museum to be staged since 2010) that includes a Harper’s Weekly cartoon from 1872 that shows a camp revival meeting and several other objects from the Reconstruction era. The US history museum has long focused on African American culture, maintaining an extensive exhibit on the Great Migration for nearly two decades and continuing to publicly display the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter from Greensboro, North Carolina. However, after the NMAAHC opens the only portrayals of Reconstruction at the US history museum will be one brief mention in the object-oriented American Stories exhibit, info in the politically focused presidential gallery, and an image of Buffalo Soldiers in the Price of Freedom. By far the richest representation of Reconstruction currently on view at any Smithsonian branch is the Freedom Just Around the Corner: Black America from Civil War To Civil Rights exhibit at the National Postal Museum, yet this temporary display that opened last year is set to close on February 15, 2016.

The left image, from the visitor center at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, depicts documents detailing Douglass’ public career during the Reconstruction era, while the right image shows our tour group about to enter his home, which maintains his room shuttered in mourning.

The left image, from the visitor center at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, depicts documents detailing Douglass’s public career during the Reconstruction era, while the right image shows our tour group about to enter his home, which maintains his room shuttered in mourning.

The start of 2016 is also a good time to assess the various ways that Reconstruction is publicly remembered by the National Park Service system, which is celebrating its centennial, just as the NPS is conducting its own “yearlong study of sites that could be appropriate for memorializing Reconstruction.” The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in the Anacostia area of DC has been open for public tours for over a century but has been managed by the NPS only since the 1960s, as all tour groups learn while they explore the house that Douglass purchased in 1877 after being named the nation’s first black US Marshal for the District of Columbia. The domicile is similar to many other posh Victorian homes save for the prominent portraits and a bust of Douglass. The Ranger-led house tours offer a complex history of the Reconstruction period, though the 1970s-era bunker that serves as a visitor center focuses more on the antebellum period, while the video shown prior to tours also seems a few decades old and could definitely use an update. Although Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, Virginia, was first authorized by Congress in 1956, and its visitor center was originally constructed as part of the Mission 66 program, the park added several farm buildings in the 1970s and in September 2014 opened a stylish new exhibit entitled Born Here, Freed Here, which includes several interactive elements. However, because Washington moved to West Virginia in 1865, the National Monument focuses much more on antebellum plantation life than it does on the Reconstruction era, which is just briefly mentioned.

The left image shows one of several bronze sculptures which are part of the new exhibit at Booker T. Washington National Monument, while the right image shows the final segment of the display which allows visitors to listen to a section of Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech.

The left image shows one of several bronze sculptures that are part of the new exhibit at Booker T. Washington National Monument, while the right image shows the final segment of the display, which allows visitors to listen to a section of Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise speech.

Though no single site memorializes the triumphs and tragedies of the Reconstruction era, which the NPS defines broadly as the years from 1861 to 1898, several other parks detail specific aspects of the period. The Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site in Alabama outlines Booker T. Washington’s efforts to build up the college from to 1881 to 1896, when he was joined by George Washington Carver, whose early life is recalled at the Missouri farm where he was born in 1860 and which became the first National Monument devoted to black history upon Carver’s death in 1943. The Nicodemus National Historic Site tells the story of the Exodusters who moved to Kansas in the 1870s, while the tale of the Buffalo Soldiers begins at the Fort Davis National Historic Site on the Texas post where the all-black units were stationed. However, since President Obama designated five new national monuments in March 2013, the Buffalo Soldiers are also honored alongside Charles Young, the first black NPS superintendent, at his Ohio home, which is in the process of being transformed into a house museum but has not yet opened to the public. Another NPS site sanctioned by that 2013 act which has yet to open is the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument on the eastern shore of Maryland, which will include a state-run museum that, according to the NPS website, was set to debut in 2015 but is now scheduled to open in March 2017. Despite this ongoing expansion there is still considerable room to reinterpret Reconstruction in the NPS system, especially in historically black northern cities in need of a heritage tourism boost, suggesting one possible park to seriously consider could be a hypothetical Northside Atlantic City National Historic Site.

About

Doctoral Student in American and Public History at Temple University. Currently holds a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Virginia and a MA in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Adjunct Professor of Writing Arts at the Richard Stockton College of NJ and a Part Time Lecturer on Political Science with Rutgers-Camden. His research focuses on American Public Memory of the Korean War. Has guided tours for museums, trolleys, candy factories, and elephants.

Posted in Bloggers Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,