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Why Reconstruction Matters
Durham, NC - Nobody ever gets nostalgic for the Reconstruction Era. No one will ever refer to it as America's "Odyssey," as Ken Burns referred to the Civil War. Men and women will never come together to reenact its historically significant moments.
But W.E.B. Du Bois knew that the period from 1865 to 1877, with its breath of freedom and democracy for minorities and conflicts brought on by vigilante-inspired violence, was one that Americans needed to confront to understand our history. It's easy to talk about the Civil War, but talking about Reconstruction poses more of a challenge.
"[Reconstruction] was not a pretty picture," historian Steven Hahn told an audience at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art Wednesday evening. "It shows how difficult it is for us [Americans] to resolve deeply divisive issues through electoral means, though we keep trying. More or most of the events of Reconstruction happened outside of the formal political process."
Scholars and historians from across the nation and abroad gathered at Duke last week for a conference commemorating the 75th anniversary of the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois' seminal book, "Black Reconstruction in America."
During the sessions, historians, political theorists and other scholars whose work have been shaped by Du Bois debated the continuing influence of Reconstruction. More than 30 scholars presented on themes such as gender and labor history. The speakers found echoes of Reconstruction issues both in modern American politics and in other conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hahn, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the conference's first keynote address, "Reconstruction and the American Political Tradition."
The Reconstruction Era, when freedmen were given the right to vote and hold office, the Confederacy was put under Army rule and carpetbaggers from the North sought opportunities in the South, was a confusing time period for many Americans -- then and now.
The standard historical narrative was not kind to the period. The first movie blockbuster, "Birth of a Nation," portrayed the Reconstruction governments as drunk, corrupt and stupid and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klansmen fighting them. Many historians who ascribed to the Dunning School of Thought agreed.
But Du Bois challenged that popular narrative. In "Black Reconstruction in America," Du Bois provided a revisionist tale that underscored the period as a flowering of democratic opportunities for blacks and poor whites alike. Hahn said Du Bois' work remains influential even though the portrayal of reformer governments brought down by organized violence makes many Americans uncomfortable.
Though many scholars have researched and written about the Reconstruction era of American history, "revisionism has made its way into the public consciousness even for liberals and the well-educated," Hahn said.
"Reconstruction is, in part, the story of fortitude in the face of lethal danger. -- The central issue is not the problem of freedom but the problem of democracy," Hahn said.
"We now see carpetbaggers in a favorable light, going into an exceedingly hostile environment with commitment, courage and tenacity," Hahn said. Americans are uncomfortable with alternate interpretations "despite decades of outstanding scholarship," he said.
Hahn said Reconstruction politics had much in common with that of pre-war America and in fact with that of other regions today where the climate is characterized by the violence of military occupation, paramilitarism, dual governments claiming power at the same time. American politics resembled what many Latin American countries experience today, Hahn said. There was coercion, repression, violence and "the culture of the ballot box thrived and celebrated the exclusion of people," he said.
Even before the war, alcohol-fueled scuffles and shouting matches between candidates helped define Election Day politics. Slaveholders suppressed outsiders through vigilante movements, shadow governments operated, women were kept at the margins and a strong nativist movement threatened to displace the Whig Party. This history helped shape the nature of the Reconstruction conflicts, Hahn said.
He said the battles between blacks and whites, with aggression and suffering on both sides, were not only fought at the ballot box but also "on the farms and woodlands and paths in between."
It was a "choreography of knives, whips, ropes, guns, fire and poison," he said. And it wasn't just black folks - Native Americans and Mexicans also faced slaveholder aggression as the country expanded westward. "Indians were not objects of American political history. They were players," he said.
Hahn received the Pulitzer Prize in history for his 2004 book, "A Nation Under our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration."
Participants said the program made real to them the lasting connections between Reconstruction and modern politics.
"It was important for me to hear [Hahn's talk] because it helps me assess where we have to go today," said Nathan Garret, a former Duke trustee who attended the event with his wife, Wanda. "You can see how difficult it is to solve the problems of democracy like in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the divisive issues around the ballot box."
For more about the conference, visit the program website.
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