Historian’s work foundation of new national monument
Kate Masur played key role in designation of first ever Reconstruction monument
A Northwestern University historian played a central role in President Barack Obama’s decision in his final days in office to recognize the historical importance of the Reconstruction era by giving national monument distinction to a group of sites located in Beaufort County, South Carolina.
Only a week before he left office, Obama used the Antiquities Act to help illuminate and protect the history of civil rights in this country by designating places in Beaufort and two other locations as national monuments.
During the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War, the former Confederate states rejoined the United States, and Americans passed three constitutional amendments designed to abolish slavery and protect individual rights, including the right to vote.
A recognized scholar on this period, Kate Masur, associate professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, is the co-author of the National Park Service’s first comprehensive review of nationally significant historical sites of the U.S. Reconstruction era.
University of California, Davis history professor Gregory Downs is the co-author of the report.
“[Reconstruction] is one of the most important and most misunderstood eras of our past,” said Masur in a Jan. 12, 2017, article in The Washington Post.
“The Reconstruction era was the nation’s first effort to grapple with slavery’s lasting impact, when millions of former slaves began forging lives in freedom, and when the nation remade the Constitution to better protect citizenship and individual rights,” Masur told The Washington Post.
African-Americans experienced both significant gains as well as serious setbacks during Reconstruction, one of the most controversial and turbulent eras in American history.
Beaufort County was one of the first places in the United States where formerly enslaved people began to work for wages, attend school and participate in politics.
Four Reconstruction era monument sites in Beaufort County
The Brick Baptist Church
The oldest church on St. Helena Island, it was built by slaves in 1855 for white planters. When the white population fled from the island in 1861, African-Americans made the church their own.
The oldest standing structure on the site of the Penn School grounds. Located on St. Helena Island, Penn School was one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves.
Camp Saxton in Port Royal
Formerly a plantation, it was the location of Emancipation Proclamation ceremonies on New Year’s Day in 1863.
Old Beaufort Firehouse
Built around 1912, the structure stands near the heart of Beaufort’s Reconstruction-era historic sites.
The divisive politics of Reconstruction
The divisive politics of Reconstruction turned on the status the former slaves would assume in the reunited nation, setting the stage for the battles over economic and racial justice that continue today.
“In the past, people believed Reconstruction was not worth commemorating,” Masur said. “It was considered a period of complete disaster, of illegal use of federal power to elevate African-Americans to a position of equality with whites, which most white people in the first half of the 20th century thought was a mistake.”
Enslaved people who lived in Beaufort County became free when the area was occupied by the U.S. Army starting in November 1861. Northerners in the area tried to revive plantation agriculture, but unlike the slaveowners who had fled the area, the northerners paid laborers for their work, Masur said.
Newly freed, African-Americans organized churches, participated in educational activities and located family members from whom they had been separated during slavery.
The town of Beaufort is so well-preserved that additional buildings could eventually become part of a larger commemorative site, Masur said.
The National Park Service, which preserves Civil War sites, commissioned Masur and Downs in 2015 to co-author a “National Historical Landmark Theme Study on the U.S. Reconstruction Era, 1861-1898,” designed to bring attention to the history of the era and to identify landmarks that help tell the nation’s story.
The park service project was an important part of ongoing efforts among historians to set the record straight about Reconstruction.
The abolition of slavery is at the heart of the history of Reconstruction, Masur said.
“It’s the history of the United States trying to come to terms with slavery’s end, through three new constitutional amendments designed to protect the rights of all people, including the formerly enslaved, and through redefining citizenship to include everybody who was born within the United States.”
But violent resistance also marked the era.
“The history of Reconstruction is also the history of white supremacy and electoral fraud designed to disenfranchise African-American voters,” Masur stressed.
With the national designation, the park service is catching up with how historians have long seen the period, she said.
“It was rewarding and eye-opening to see just how many people and how many dynamics were involved in bringing the monument into being,” Masur said. “The effort required local support and local mobilization, and support from people at all different levels of government agencies. I learned a lot about the complexity of a process like this.”
As President Obama’s time in office was winding down, Masur was not certain whether all the required paperwork would be submitted in time -- or furthermore, whether President Obama would be interested in declaring a national monument to Reconstruction. She learned of his decision just hours before the official announcement on Jan. 12.
“We hope the national monument designation will spur people across the country to investigate, commemorate and learn from this crucial period,” Masur said.
Masur said she and Downs would like to stay involved with the work of creating the Reconstruction monument in South Carolina.
“We are all enormously proud of this public service that brings our University’s scholarship to bear on our nation’s understanding of its past -- and its ongoing debate about its future,” said Ken Alder, chair of the history department at Northwestern.
In addition to the South Carolina sites, President Obama also designated the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama, as new national monuments honoring civil rights history.
“These stories are part of our shared history,” said President Obama in a statement announcing the new national monuments. “I have sought to build a more inclusive National Park System and ensure that our national parks, monuments and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture.”