Unfortunately the 150th anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment and the formal beginning of Reconstruction probably will not have the power or grandeur of the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Civil War. There likely will be fewer academic symposia and state-commissioned programs. This is not as it should be.
The era of Reconstruction witnessed important struggles over labor and land, the passage of progressive legislation in the areas of education, citizenship, civil rights and suffrage alongside a huge backlash by white Southerners. For decades after, Reconstruction came to be most noted and celebrated for its violent overthrow, the victory of force over the rule of law that left African-Americans disfranchised and whipped — quite literally — into poverty and a pernicious racial caste system. And perhaps no other period of American history was so reviled by historians. In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois penned a stunning indictment of the role of the historical profession in this business. Despite historians’ massive revision of the era in recent decades, the achievements of Reconstruction and price paid remain as absent from public memory as the terror.
So how do we mount a national reckoning, a counter narrative to 150 years of “dis-remembering?” What kind of public monuments might we erect to celebrate the struggles of black people for freedom and political and civil rights or record the violence?
Low Country South Carolina is one of several places where we might profitably have this conversation. Today, beyond a piece of land designated, hopefully, “The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park,” the island of Hilton Head largely represents a disavowal of its history of slavery and Reconstruction. The Mitchelville Preservation Project is working to ensure that the history of the Mitchelville settlement, founded in 1862 and one of the first self-governed communities of former slaves in the United States is not forgotten. The conversations around this project have the capacity to help change how we remember Reconstruction and how we live today.
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Thavolia Glymph is an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Duke University. This op-ed first appeared in the New York Times as part of its "Room For Debate" series. It is used here with permission.