Reconstruction history, racial legacy 150 years later

The shooting of nine people in a Charleston AME church was a catalyst for South Carolina lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds. Nine months later, the state’s capital city will host a public symposium for people and public officials to explore the history and racial legacy of the Reconstruction era. 

The April 21-22 event marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Reconstruction era and will feature Rep. James Clyburn, the state’s first African-American member of Congress since Reconstruction, Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar Eric Foner as well as an array of scholars and public historians. 

“The Reconstruction Era: History and Public Memory Symposium” is presented by Historic Columbia and the University of South Carolina’s History Center and will take place in part at the historic African-American Ladson Presbyterian Church and the family home of Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s only museum dedicated to Reconstruction. 

“With the recent opening of the Wilson site as an exploration of the Reconstruction era in Columbia and the extensive work by University of South Carolina professor Bobby Donaldson on the civil rights era, South Carolina’s capital city is uniquely positioned to host this dialogue,” says Robin Waites, executive director of Historic Columbia. 

Foner will open the symposium with a keynote address at 6 p.m. April 21 at Ladson Presbyterian Church about the significance of Reconstruction for South Carolina. The DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, Foner won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2011 book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” and is well known for his seminal book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.” 

The symposium will continue from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. April 22 at the Columbia Museum of Art and features Clyburn as the keynote speaker at a luncheon. His address is titled “From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement: Personal Reflections.” The symposium will conclude with a reception and tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction, from 3:30 – 5 p.m. at 1705 Hampton St.

The events include a morning panel discussion about the new directions historians are taking in their Reconstruction writing and work and an afternoon panel that will explore the  challenges and opportunities that museums, park services and public history sites face in the interpreting and presenting Reconstruction. The panels, which will feature top historians from South Carolina, California, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon and New York, will include question and answer sessions. 

While the symposium is free and open to the public, the lunch costs $30 per person. Advance registration for the symposium is required as seating is limited. 

Reconstruction (1866-77), was a period of transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship for nearly 4 million African-Americans. It saw the enacting of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, which expanded constitutional protection of citizenship rights for all Americans. The achievements of Reconstruction, its violent demise and its impact on African-Americans and race relations today, is one of the most misrepresented and poorly understood episodes of American history. 

“The history and memory of Reconstruction inspired generations of activists whose efforts culminated with the civil rights achievements of the 1950s and 1960s and remains foundational to ongoing struggles around race and democracy, citizenship and rights,” says Patricia Sullivan, director of the History Center in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.  “The engagement of the public in this history, through events such as this symposium, and the establishment of public markers and commemorations, is essential to recovering this vital part of our past.” 

Sullivan, a prolific scholar in African-American history, race relations and the civil rights movement, wrote the book, “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” the first history of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.  

It is the hope of Sullivan and Waites that the symposium not only will deepen public understanding of Reconstruction but that it will promote a conversation around topics that include: 

  • Reconstruction as America’s first experiment in interracial democracy and its meaning today;
  • South Carolina as the pivotal site in the contest over how society commemorates the South and the nation’s racial past;
  • Why Reconstruction should claim a place equal to the Civil War in American memory and why it doesn’t; and
  • Reconstruction as the first battle in America’s civil rights movement. 

More information about symposium and registration is available online. Questions can be directed to Historic Columbia at 803-252-1770 ext. 23 or reservations@historiccolumbia.org.


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