One of President Obama’s last act while in office was to designate a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort, South Carolina. The AHA supported this important expansion of the National Park Service system with a letter to the US Secretary of the Interior on November 16, 2016. AHA Today spoke to historians Greg Downs and Kate Masur, whose advocacy was crucial to this effort, about the significance of the designation, the backstory of the monument’s creation, and next steps.
What is the significance of the creation of the Reconstruction monument in Beaufort, South Carolina? Reconstruction is the most-misunderstood period in US history. It was a period of extraordinary social, political, and constitutional change, when the United States abolished slavery and remade the Constitution to create birthright citizenship, equal protection, and due process, and to ban racial discrimination in voting. Newly freed from bondage, southern African Americans reconstituted families, created schools and churches, elected thousands of local officials, and began to acquire property. In that formative era, Americans debated who counted as a citizen and what powers citizens possessed in ways that still resonate today. Yet 150 years after the Military Reconstruction Acts that launched biracial democracy in the ex-Confederate states, many people still do not know anything about the era, or they know a series of myths and legends.