Accurately remembering and commemorating the past, good and bad

Next up on the list: Reconstruction, a time deeply infused with the legacy of racial prejudice, civil- and voting-rights violations, and power politics. The effort is timely. On its sesquicentennial, for example, Memphis, Tennessee, recently memorialized an 1866 massacre in which, following the rumor of a freedman’s insurrection, 48 people were murdered and hundreds more badly beaten or raped by rampaging white mobs over a 36-hour period. Horrors like that are why the National Park Service has called the aftermath of the Civil War “one of the most complicated, poorly understood, and significant periods in American history.” Millions of former slaves found liberation, but they had to create a new community for themselves inside a very fragile nation—one in which many residents of the former Confederacy found the new realities of abolition and military defeat repugnant. Citing Reconstruction scholarship as “slow to enter public consciousness,” this year the National Park Service published a handbook for rangers and historians to ensure that “discredited legends” (like neo-Confederate claims that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery) don’t “stand in place of historical fact.” [link]

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