Historic Sites and the Interpretation of Reconstruction: An Interview with Emmanuel Dabney

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Emmanuel Dabney. Image courtesy Gettysburg College.
Emmanuel Dabney. Image courtesy Gettysburg College.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the prominent speakers scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies.  Today, we’re speaking with Emmanuel Dabney, park curator at Petersburg National Battlefield in Petersburg, Virginia. Dabney holds a B.A. in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and an M.A. in Public History from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He maintains the blog Interpretive Challenges.

CWI: At what types of sites might we locate the history of Reconstruction?  What sites, specifically, lend themselves especially well to an interpretation of Reconstruction?

DABNEY: We should encounter the history of Reconstruction at a variety of sites including, but not limited to, local and state historical societies; historic house museums; and local, state, and National Park Service-operated sites and battlefields.

There are a host of sites that lend themselves to interpreting Reconstruction: State Capitol buildings with visitor centers (especially those located in the South), every Civil War battlefield and Civil War-era National Cemetery, historic plantations, and National Park Service units that relate to the Reconstruction presidents, such as President’s Park (aka The White House), Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

CWI: How has the history of Reconstruction been treated—or ignored—in the past at historic sites, and how has such interpretation evolved in recent years?

DABNEY: There seems to be a struggle in bringing this history to the public. For example, Oakley Park in South Carolina, which I admit I have personally not visited, seems to have a troubled relationship with its history concerning the Red Shirts in post-Civil War South Carolina. The history of the Red Shirts using weapons to intimidate black and white Republicans has been documented in many books. For example, during the Congressional investigation into the Red Shirts, one black man testified: “On the morning of the election there were fifty of us in the crowd, and we met fifty armed men with rifles and sixteen shooters and pistols; they met us at the cross-roads, about half a mile from the box. They turned our men back and told them if they were going there to vote for that thieving son of a bitch, Chamberlain, they could not go to that box unless they would go and vote for Wade Hampton and good government. There was fifty colored men turned back, and there was fifty red-shirt armed men there to turn them back.” However, Oakley Park’s website makes no mention of the Red Shirts’ reign of terror and the racial complexity of what the site refers to as the “campaign to restore Democratic government to South Carolina.”

A Reconstruction-era cartoon depicting “The First Vote” for African Americans. Image courtesy Smithsonian Institution.
A Reconstruction-era cartoon depicting “The First Vote” for African Americans. Image courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

Furthermore, Oakley Park refers to itself formally as the “Red Shirt Shrine & Museum.”  “Shrine” is a word that, by definition, implies “a place in which devotion is paid to a saint or deity,” and the third definition is “a place or object hallowed by its associations.”  The use of the term “shrine” to describe Oakley Park is therefore understandably troubling to South Carolina’s black populace, as it suggests that the actions of the Red Shirts at Oakley Park are deemed “hallowed” or worthy of admiration and devotion. Oakley Park would be an ideal site at which to interpret many of the complexities of Reconstruction; however, the site’s apparent reticence to confront this history and its long-term legacies impedes such important discussions from taking place.

Reconstruction is difficult to interpret because it is so complex. This isn’t to say that battlefields are not complex; however, Civil War battles occurred in a defined space with decided outcomes. The policies of local, state, and Federal governments, while created at the capitol buildings, radiated across long distances and involved an intricate (and, admittedly, at times confusing) web of political, social, economic, and cultural interests and relationships. Additionally, the history of Reconstruction remains controversial and difficult for many Americans to confront head-on due to its uncomfortable or unsettling nature and its palpable, present-day legacies of racial tensions and political animosities.

The major impediment to a more complex interpretation of Reconstruction that historic sites have faced, and continue to wrestle with, is the legacy of the Dunning School. The lessons of the Dunning School (largely that instituting black voting rights was a political mistake, that Republican state governments in the South were corrupt, and that the Republican-dominated Congress was oppressive to white Southerners) have long dominated history textbooks, including those read by many of the “Baby Boomer” generation, as well as popular memory of Reconstruction. With the exception of the work of W. E. B. DuBois there was little to counter the ideologies of William A. Dunning and his students, and DuBois’s race prevented him from influencing mainstream history textbooks during the entire first half of the 20th century. The later work of historians such as Kenneth Stampp, Leon Litwack, Eric Foner, and others refuted the arguments of the Dunning School, but the popular misconception of Reconstruction as an abject failure still exists, with much of the blame for that failure laid on former slaves themselves, as well on the Radical Republicans in Congress.

However, there are some historic sites that have managed to see through the hazy history propagated by the Dunning School. Some examples include the Virginia State Capitol which, after the completion of a multi-million dollar renovation from 2004-2007, opened a visitor center featuring exhibits on the post-Civil War General Assembly, changes to the Constitution, admittance of black delegates, and the rise of Jim Crow.  Additionally, in 2005, James Madison’s Montpelier restored and interpreted the George Gilmore & Family Cabin through the help of Gilmore descendants. Gilmore was a former slave at Montpelier who lived in this cabin from the early 1870s until his death in 1905. Montpelier’s staff also saved the 1910 (Jim Crow Era) train station and installed several exhibits therein about segregation.

The National Park Service is also striving to broaden its treatment of Reconstruction history. The NPS is currently conducting a theme study of Reconstruction-related history and sites within its holdings and throughout the nation as a whole to which I personally have contributed by suggesting several sites in Virginia for future inclusion within the NPS.  I continue to maintain that, while there is no one primarily Reconstruction-focused site in the NPS at this time, the NPS does manage several sites that could and should interpret this period; indeed, some have begun to do just that. Michael Allen, an NPS ranger on detail from Fort Sumter, has great passion for the Reconstruction theme study and has been an active participant in trying to incorporate more Reconstruction sites into the National Park Service.  I personally have delivered a program on Reconstruction in Petersburg, and Mike Gorman, a Park Ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park, recently led a successful Reconstruction-focused program at that park’s Chimborazo unit, the site of the largest Confederate hospital and a post-war Freedmen’s Bureau School.

CWI: Where do you see the interpretation of Reconstruction at historic sites headed in the future? Why are Reconstruction sites so important to America in the present day?  What role can they and should they play in our national conscience and daily lives?

DABNEY: I’m hopeful that somehow we can see the themes of Reconstruction become more firmly rooted in daily interpretation through tours and exhibits in museums and not just in specialty tours. The period of Reconstruction is extremely vital to the American psyche and culture. Powerful and far-reaching white supremacist organizations emerged during this period, creating a reign of terror in many communities, both real and imagined. The ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution was a critical development in our nation’s work toward achieving “a more perfect union.” Additionally, the 14th Amendment is one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Constitution by our nation’s legal system. As we continue to struggle over social equality and equal access to the ballot, staff at historic sites can become important facilitators of contemporary civic dialogue by helping to shape the public’s understanding of the past and of the long and complex shadow of Reconstruction–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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