Here are the most timely and intriguing items about Reconstruction that I found this past week. (What did I miss? Let me know in the comments…)
The University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB), in partnership with the City of Beaufort, Penn Center, and the University Of South Carolina College Of Education, will host 30 K-12 teachers from around the country for a three-week summer institute July 12 – August 1, 2015. The institute, “America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story,” will guide the educators through more than a century of American history—from the final years of the cotton kingdom in the South, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and up to the modern civil rights era.
The institute is funded as a result of a $200,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant awarded in 2014 to J. Brent Morris, Ph.D., assistant professor of history in the Department of Humanities and Fine Arts at USCB.
Recently a columnist in this newspaper wrote a scathing attack on the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. He then made a series of statements justifying his conclusion that “the ugly history of Reconstruction is dawning anew.” We supposedly face a different type of Reconstruction: “This time the culprits seething with malice and seeking to once again crush and conquer the old Confederacy are the Radical Revisionists.”
I guess I am a radical revisionist. For years I have written about Reconstruction in Arkansas, and now more than ever I see it as a great experiment which offered so much but which, admittedly, fell short in many ways. While it failed in guaranteeing the liberty and rights of the freedmen, Reconstruction was the beginning of the modernization of Arkansas–a process which more or less continues to this day.
Ben Tillman reminds us that the defeat of the Confederacy was not the end of our reckoning with slavery. We are also living in the shadow of Reconstruction and its overthrow, a war that Tillman and his comrades won. A large statue of Tillman stands on the South Carolina statehouse grounds in Columbia, and prominent buildings on several campuses bear his name, tributes to his power and popularity. To take full account of Ben Tillman is to understand a far more difficult truth: for a hundred years after the Confederate flag fell in 1865, the white supremacy for which Tillman proudly stood was part of the governing ideology of the United States. The slaveholders lost the Civil War, but they and their sons won the battle that followed. Ben Tillman’s career charts the nature and scope of that victory, and his legacies continue to shape our world.
Tillman’s career reminds us that the world of the post-Civil War South was shaped, to a staggering degree, by murder. His service as a “Red Shirt” foot soldier in 1876 included election-day violence aimed at preventing South Carolina’s black majority from voting. A black political organizer approached the polls in November to find Tillman waving a pistol: “If I come any further,” he reported Tillman telling him, “I would come through blood.” Such terror cast the election of 1876 into doubt, installed a Republican president who no longer counted on southern votes, and returned the former slaveholding class to power in South Carolina. Slavery was not reestablished, but through violence and intimidation slavery’s champions and their heirs replaced it with a racial caste system.