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Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era

The National Park Service is trying to reshape public views of the still hotly contested effort to rebuild the American South after the Civil War.

Growing up in Kingstree, S.C., in the 1960s, Michael Allen never knew the town had elected a black mayor in the years after the Civil War. There was no monument dedicated to the man’s memory. He was never mentioned in school.

“I had to become an adult to learn that history,” said Mr. Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service. “It was never presented to me.”

In more than three decades with the park service, Mr. Allen, 54, has helped revise historical interpretations at sites like Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and arrange new historical markers noting neglected African-American figures, like that mayor, throughout South Carolina.

Now, he’s the on-the-ground coordinator for what may be an even more ambitious project: improving public understanding of the complex, poorly understood and still hotly contested period known as Reconstruction.

The park service has played an important role in shaping, and reshaping, popular historical awareness. During the past two decades it has overhauled its Civil War sites, incorporating material on slavery into exhibits that had long been criticized by scholars for avoiding discussion of the root causes of the conflict.

But its 408 properties nationwide still do not include a single site dedicated to the postwar struggle to build a racially equal democracy.