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Reconstruction and the National Park Service

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Ku Klux Klan member, Tennessee, 1868

This is a good piece summarizing the one area of U.S. history that the National Park Service has done a terrible job commemorating, which is, not surprisingly, Reconstruction. The NPS does a really commendable job of remembering the American past, especially given its increasingly limited resources spread out over increasing numbers of parks. But Reconstruction is a major gap. The first reason is obvious–that for so long the popular historical interpretation of the period was one most popularly told in Birth of a Nation. But this open white supremacy was always challenged by African-Americans and in recent decades the popular memory has shifted. Except among conservative white people, which still means memory of the period is extremely charged. The NPS is moving toward some new sites that would remember the brief, aborted attempt to create something like a racial democracy in the post-Civil War period. What has to happen now that did not happen in 2003 when the last time an effort to create a Reconstruction site took place is to not allow the Confederate heritage organizations to have a seat at the table. This is the equivalent of allowing Neo-Nazi organizations to have a role in deciding on official historical remembrance of the Holocaust.

I do believe we will see, at the very least, Obama simply name a Reconstruction-era National Monument before he leaves office. A congressional bill would be preferable because it would show that there is a broader understanding of what Reconstruction is really about but given the rise of radical white supremacist Republicanism in the last decade, this feels unlikely to me. Moreover, I am concerned that the NPS is still bringing representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans into meetings. Why? They should be excluded entirely. They are never going to agree and don’t have a legitimate viewpoint to begin with.

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