Deconstructing Reconstruction

Reconstruction was the first chapter in America’s civil rights movement. It inspired activists whose efforts led to the achievements of the 1950s and 1960s. And its influence on race relations continues across the country and on college campuses, although few may realize its connection.

Now 150 years later, the University of South Carolina’s History Center and Historic Columbia hopes to deepen public understanding of Reconstruction’s history and racial legacy with a symposium April 21–22. Reconstruction (1866-77) was a period of transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship for nearly 4 million African-Americans.

Titled “Reconstruction Era: History and Public Memory Symposium,” the event will feature U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the state’s first African-American member of Congress since Reconstruction, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner of Columbia University and an array of scholars and public historians from Carolina and colleges across the nation.

Foner’s keynote address is at 6 p.m. Thursday at Ladson Presbyterian Church. Friday’s panel discussions and lunch with Clyburn will be at the Columbia Museum of Art, followed by a later afternoon reception and tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction.

The symposium also provides an opportunity for the university to reflect on its Reconstruction history and the first admission of black students during a tumultuous period that began in 1873 and ended in 1877 when the governor and the state Legislature closed the university. Carolina was the only state-supported college in the South to desegregate during Reconstruction.

Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson calls the era a daring experiment.

“The hiring of Richard T. Greener, an African-American professor and the admission of black students – less than a decade after the end of slavery – were part of an extraordinary and daring experiment. Against the backdrop of Reconstruction, African-American students sought to advance their education even as they fought to overcome widespread doubts about their mental and intellectual ability to succeed,” Donaldson says.

Greener was a pioneer. The first African-American to graduate from Harvard University, he was as prominent a national figure as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois. He immersed himself at Carolina, teaching classics, mathematics and constitutional history as the university’s first African-American professor while serving as the first librarian to implement a modern catalog system for the university’s then-27,000 volumes. His commitment to equal rights and social justice was further fueled by his earning of a law degree from Carolina and admittance to the South Carolina Bar.

“Even as the period of Reconstruction came to an abrupt halt and even as the forces of white supremacy sought to uproot important political and social advances, professor Greener and many of the students he mentored believed that emancipation was an ongoing and never-ending struggle,” says Donaldson, who leads the university’s new Center for Civil Rights History and Research. “Their efforts and their vision laid the groundwork for the changes that gripped our nation generations later. Our archived records show very clearly that the architects of the modern civil rights movement were astute students of history and frequently referenced the goals and ‘deferred dreams’ of the Reconstruction era.”

Patricia Sullivan, director of the History Center, says Reconstruction leaders inspired generations of activists.

“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 says.

Christian Anderson, associate professor of education, invites the campus to support a project to erect a statue of Greener in a grassy park adjacent to Thomas Cooper Library. Sculptor Jon Hair has been selected to create The Richard T. Greener Memorial.

“Only by understanding our past can we move forward. This memorial will serve as a physical manifestation of historical memory to honor the legacy of a leader whose journey was not easy and whose contributions were great and lasting. It also will serve as reminder of the unfortunate and negative side of the university’s closing in the attempt by the state’s legislative body to erase that history,” Anderson says. “It will be an opportunity for everyone who passes the Greener statue to know more about their history and engage with it.”

Anderson co-chairs the memorial committee with art history assistant professor Lydia Brandt and Katherine Chaddock, a professor emerita of higher education. Plans for an endowed annual symposium in addition to the statue require $350,000 in funding. To learn more or make a donation, visit the Richard T. Greener Memorial Fund website.

If you are going

For the full schedule of events, visit the Reconstruction Era: History and Public Memory Symposium website.