Reconstruction & the National Park Service

First, let me preface this with saying while I work for the NPS I am blogging PERSONALLY. These thoughts are MY OWN and NOT reflective of any official National Park Service (NPS) policy. However, with a recent article being shared written by two historians about the NPS and Reconstruction, I could not let this moment go by. I think Greg Downs and Kate Masur’s article is well written and they make good points. Still, I thought a voice from the NPS and someone who actually works “in the field” was important and needed in this discussion.

Back in 2011 is the first year I remember hearing people say they wanted the NPS to have a park dedicated to the theme of Reconstruction. My reaction is the same as it was then: We have parks who should be interpreting Reconstruction. The first one that comes to mind is Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. In case it escaped people, Andrew Johnson is the first president after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He’s in office 1865-1869. His head butting and very different vision of America than that of the Radical Republicans in Congress nearly cost him his job. I admit I have never been to the site; but, if you’re looking for a NPS site that seems to be a very logical one.

However, I am not opposed to Kevin Levin’s thoughts (as well as numerous people I’ve heard at conferences) about a park at Beaufort and Sea Islands in South Carolina. However, as he noted Reconstruction is complicated. Creating one park or two or three or even ten, cannot fully encapsulate this complex period.  Why?

Places where Reconstruction happened.

  • The black farmer, Abraham Brian at Gettysburg has a story about reconstruction. A literal repairing his house and farm after the destruction the Battle of Gettysburg brought to him in July 1863 and the political/societal shifts brought about through Constitutional amendments in the aftermath of the Confederate military surrenders.
  • All NPS sites with Civil War National Cemeteries. 
  • Plantations and slaveholding farms such as Hampton and Melrose.
  • Nicodemus National Historic Site, though established in 1877 (and has buildings that post-date the government’s end of Reconstruction) reflects black people who were certainly alive during Reconstruction.

Putting a Reconstruction park in a single place doesn’t reflect how far-reaching the Reconstruction period was. It could have the effect of suggesting that “You should go THERE (wherever that is) to learn about Reconstruction. Once you’ve done that you’re done with that theme.”

"Appomattox"--The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant's headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes' family's plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

“Appomattox”–The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant’s headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes’ family’s plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

I want to illustrate that the people who lived on what BECAME battlefields (I think we forget that these NPS sites were people’s places of work and home) had to cope with different types of Reconstruction. There was literally repairing buildings as well as political/social/financial reconstructions.  On May 23rd, 2015 from 1-4PM should anyone want to drive on down/up/across to Petersburg National Battlefield I will be doing a tour titled: “’…a perfect waste:’ Destruction and Reconstruction of the Land and People.” The tour begins at 1001 Pecan Avenue, Hopewell, Virginia.

 So this notion that we NEED a park SOLELY dedicated to Reconstruction, I’m not opposed to necessarily; but, we have parks that have these stories. If you (visitors) want to hear those stories push for them on your visit. Whether it be at a NPS site, a state park, a local museum/historic site, etc. 

Reconstruction is harder to commemorate at one place because of the various visions of America and Americans’ dreams about their lives and expectations from the different levels of government during this period. In fact, it’s perfectly ok if we have to drive great distances to understand Reconstruction.

What do you think?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Reconstruction & the National Park Service

  1. Carol Shively

    Emmanuel,

    Thanks for your thoughtful insights. While I like the idea of another or several more “Reconstruction sites,” it’s important to note the existence of places like Andrew Johnson NHS and Fort Monroe NM. Further, just about every Civil War-related park has a Reconstruction/Jim Crow story. Jean Lafitte, Stones River, Shiloh, and Cumberland Island, to name a few, tell the stories of the contraband camps and freedmen’s colonies associated with their sites, Non-Civil War-related sites also tell such stories. Shenandoah, for example, interprets the story of Lewis Mountain, a CCC camp that later became the only place “colored” people could stay in the park. We just need to start telling these stories!

    Carol Shively

    • Thanks Carol for your comments. I agree: tell the stories where we have parks. We certainly could add more in order to tell other important parts of the American experience.

  2. Tom

    “We have parks who should be interpreting Reconstruction.”

    Yes, this. It is a huge topic, one not centralized to a specific locale. I agree that period specific historic sites should be given the charge of helping the American people understand Reconstruction – and their site’s role in it.

    Otherwise, you’ll have the NPS version of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which is in Cleveland, Ohio. Never mind that meaningful rock music came out of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Deep South….

  3. Great article. Thanks for getting a lot of thinking going.

    • Pat I hope it will indeed make people think differently and see places differently.

      I forgot to add that Appomattox Court House has been doing immediate post-war (which would be Reconstruction era) interpretation in their summer living history work for many years.

      I also meant to include the Chimborazo Hospital site a part of Richmond National Battlefield. This location became the site of a school in Reconstruction era Richmond.

      • We have seen a flowing of abolition and Underground Railroad sites over the last quarter century, maybe we can see communities explore their Reconstruction roots too.

  4. You know, being an employee at NICO as well as a former employee of a Civil War site, I do agree that interpreting Reconstruction is a necessary aspect of fully conveying the significance of a site. As I like to say, “history is a continuum,” and many rangers at many sites do make a valiant effort to provide quality programming related to Reconstruction.

    That being said, Reconstruction is an enormously complex period. It’s significance is on par with the Civil War itself, as much of the historical memory that relates to the War formed as a result of policies and events that took place during Reconstruction and NOT during the War. Additionally, the period is still tremendously controversial. As a result, schools do a poor job of teaching Reconstruction, and in my experience, the parks the do offer programming related to Reconstruction offer it in so limited a manner that the period comes across as marginalized. I visited Andrew Johnson a few years ago, and if I remember correctly, they do a much better job at interpreting the person of Andrew Johnson than they do his presidency and the early part of Reconstruction. Another example: Nicodemus NHS. Though Nicodemus is in many ways a product of Reconstruction, the interpretation that we provide here generally relates much more to what happens AFTER the town is founded and settled than it does the context in which it was founded (though, I believe history is a continuum, so I do attempt to provide the necessary context regarding the Reconstruction policies that served as the impetus for the black exodus from the south when I provide tours and programs).

    In recent years, the NPS has done a much better job at preserving and interpreting difficult or perhaps embarrassing periods in our history. I think that the way we interpret Reconstruction needs to be overhauled within the parks in which Reconstruction is a part of the narrative. I also think that identifying and creating parks dedicated to providing a more holistic view of the period could be of great value.

  5. Pingback: Historic Sites and the Interpretation of Reconstruction: An Interview with Emmanuel Dabney | The Gettysburg Compiler

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