Tag Archives: Reconstruction

Violence After Victory: Reconstruction Scholarship at the OAH

The streets, sidewalks, and facades of New Orleans’ famous Canal Street repeatedly bore witness to terrible outbursts of violence throughout the Reconstruction Era, as ex-Confederates tried to overturn the egalitarian reforms of Reconstruction through bloodshed and intimidation. Several of the most important massacres and street battles in the history of Reconstruction happened within walking distance of the Marriott, this year’s venue for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre of 1866, which Philip Sheridan famously termed “an absolute massacre by the police” of supporters of black suffrage, took place just four blocks up Canal Street from the conference.[1] In this sense, the OAH was a fitting venue for Sunday’s panel, “Democratizing Violence in the Post-Civil War South.”

The panel explored the role of violence in shaping Reconstruction and the meaning of the Confederate defeat. Two of the speakers, David Williard and Carin Peller-Semmens, employed a bottom-up perspective to gauge the impact of vigilantism on the parameters of Reconstruction, while the third, Bradley Proctor, examined the ideology behind acts of white supremacist violence. Despite the different methodologies, the panelists made a single, collective assertion that the wave of postwar violence carries significant implications for our understandings of the arc of Reconstruction, its design, and its possibilities.

Peller-Semmens makes perhaps the most recognizable claim about postwar violence: that white vigilantism constituted an important political tool through which former Confederates regained local control after the war. Her essay, “‘The Creatures Do Not Respect Their Creator’: The Unifying Power of Violent White Supremacy in Northwest Louisiana,” argues persuasively that ex-Confederates in northwestern Louisiana used violence as a tool to overthrow the Republican Party in the Red River region of the state. Peller-Semmens examines the correspondence and political origins of three massacres in the region–at Shady Grove, Colfax, and Coushatta–finding that vigilantes tortured and killed local Republicans in grisly spectacles to permanently disable the party.

Where previous narratives of violence in northwest Louisiana tend to discuss postwar violence within its immediate context, Peller-Semmens provides a more detailed and sophisticated framework by alluding to antebellum systems of power.[2] She finds that “violence supplanted mastery as the means of subjugating freedpeople” after the war, cutting across class lines and prior party affiliation as part of a popularized struggle in ways slavery never could. This widespread white vigilantism in northwest Louisiana helped institutionalize white power and citizenship at the expense of African Americans while repositioning the remembered antebellum plantation regime to align more closely with the rhetoric white solidarity than property. In short, vigilantism rendered white southern politics participatory.

Williard likewise argues compellingly in “The Violent Creation of Confederate Veteranhood” that ex-Confederates’ acts of vigilantism in the immediate aftermath of the war indicate real changes to southern social and political hierarchies. Williard’s argument finds poignant illustration in his telling of an attack on a formerly enslaved man in Mississippi by a group of Confederate veterans. The victim, whose name was sadly omitted in the records, carried a pass from his enslaver-turned-employer to visit another plantation. Rather than respect the authority conveyed by the pass, however, the ex-Confederates declared “we don’t give a damn for that” and brutally assaulted the bearer. For Williard, widespread incidents like this indicate that the nature of citizenship itself had been altered during the war and its aftermath. White violence transformed the antebellum hierarchy predicated on the fetishization of enslavers’ property-in-persons to one based on white men’s “capacity to weild force… [as] the basis for standing within their communities.” These vigilantes acted to make sense of their Confederate service and challenge the classist version of white supremacy that characterized the region in the antebellum period.

Williard and Peller-Semmens’s more granular analyses of the role of violence in shaping the course of Reconstruction pair well with Proctor’s larger ideological framework in “The Mind of the Klan: An Intellectual History of White Supremacy during Reconstruction.” Proctor notes that though the antebellum order had been thoroughly upended by the war and emancipation, the nature of its replacement was still very much in doubt during Reconstruction. This uncertainty, for Proctor, helped inspire the Klan to pursue violence. In this sense, as with Williard and Peller-Semmens, postwar white vigilantism represents more of a response to changes brought by emancipation than an urge to maintain the prewar regime of plantation violence.

Proctor weaves examples of Klan violence into this ideological narrative to illustrate its connection to material systems of power. He finds that over half of the local officials and politicians they assaulted were white, and that Klansmen also attacked planters whose terms of employment seemed to favorable to freedpeople, representing a significant breach with the property-oriented, elite-friendly antebellum system. Proctor likewise argues that Klansmen espoused a specific vision of the post-emancipation household and regularly assailed “white or black, who seemingly challenged strict familial or sexual boundaries of race.” As a result, he observes, two thirds of the women attacked by Klansmen were single, versus only about one tenth of men.

The overarching vision of the panel indicates the richness of the “Dark Turn” in studies of the Civil War era.[3] Although violence alone falls flat as an analytical construct (as chair and commenter Greg Downs rightly noted), the renewed emphasis on violence provides an opportunity to better understand the workings of local government and its relationship to white supremacy. Indeed, one of the most significant and unfortunate achievements of Reconstruction was embedding white supremacy in state and local systems of power at the very moment when it might have finally been vanquished. Placing a greater emphasis on acts of violence also allows historians of the period to locate white northerners within the workings of white supremacy. Did they tacitly condone these acts, actively participate, or accept them as the price for Reunion? Despite the innovative work of Edward Blum, Chandra Manning, Elaine Parsons, and others in this direction, there is still much we do not know about the northern role in Reconstruction violence.[4] And if the many panels examining the legal implications of Reconstruction are any indication, the project of outlining the material and cultural limits of Radical reforms within the context of white supremacy and vigilantism will remain important for the foreseeable future.

[1] James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 44.

[2] Gilles Vandal provides by far the best survey of postwar violence in Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002).

[3] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/.

[4] Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005). Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007). Elaine Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015).

William Horne

William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University and editor at The Activist History Review, http://www.activisthistory.com. His research explores the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. Mr. Horne’s dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted at horne.activisthistory@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

Author Interview: Nancy Bercaw

To coincide with our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, we interviewed Nancy Bercaw, curator of the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Bercaw contributed to our roundtable discussion on how Reconstruction is represented in public history contexts. In this interview she discusses the challenges, surprises, and pitfalls she encountered while preparing these exhibits, and she also provides some timely advice for those interested in pursuing museum studies.


What were some of the challenges of telling the story of Reconstruction at the Museum of African American History and Culture? How did curators address those challenges?

Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced was how to maintain the complexity of the Reconstruction era without overwhelming the visitor. From teaching, I knew that students get lost in the twists and turns of Reconstruction and drown in legal acts and proclamations. The result is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. We addressed this by using physical space to our advantage. We set the legislative acts on a wall that literally faces another wall that explores the variety of African American expressions of freedom. Then we were careful to make sure each wall referred to the other. The ungodly violence was more difficult to convey. So we made a media piece filled with voices and images from the period to give force and movement to the period.

Do you have any sense of how visitors react to the parts of the exhibits that deal with emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow? What questions do they have? What surprises them?

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many visitors is that emancipation was the result of African American thought and action. People are used to the Lincoln story or the fact that “the nation” waged a war against slavery. They see this as inevitable. So when they see the story through the African American lens they understand that the demise of slavery was far from inevitable, far from complete, and that it took thought, action, and political ingenuity. They are also taken aback that African American men held elected office after the Civil War and that so many homes, businesses, and institutions were built in this period. Jim Crow is less of a surprise.

In light of new developments like the museum, the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, and public commemorations of the Memphis Massacre, do you think it’s increasingly possible to talk about Reconstruction in public life today?

I certainly hope so. I certainly see it referred to more on social media and in the press. That being said, we have a long way to go. I think most Americans have no idea what Reconstruction was. We hope to use social media and our website to provide a public forum for debates that are largely confined to academic discussion and social activism.

Many people have drawn connections between Reconstruction and our current moment. What do you personally think is the best, most historically honest way to make those connections and tell that story? What are the stakes when we do so, and what are the potential pitfalls?

I think the pitfalls lie in telling any story that makes history seem cyclical, inevitable, or unchanging. This shapes the way I make connections between past and present. I have really appreciated using the concept of afterlives—a sedimentary vision of history—to display past and present. We can do this in a three-dimensional medium through juxtaposition and repetition. For example, when you enter our history galleries you can see down three levels with the Edisto Island slave house on the first floor and the Jim Crow railcar and the Angola prison guard tower on the second floor. You can see the passage of time but you can also see (quite literally) the past in the present.

You moved from being a history professor to being a museum curator. What are some of the biggest differences between the two jobs? How is writing history different from producing it in a museum?

What I have found so delightful and satisfying is how the two careers really work well together. At the University of Mississippi, I was responsible for teaching survey classes that were often quite large. Lectures, therefore, were inevitable. It turns out that this is quite valuable experience for putting together a museum exhibition. For one thing, you are always concerned about your audience. How can you invite them into a topic? How can you make it useful, engaging, and relevant? How can you leave spaces for them to put together the material themselves and own it? Finally, I really enjoyed surveys because you take a large and complex topic and break it down in such a way that it remains complex, but knowable. Exhibitions work the same way. You are faced with a vast array of material and stories (such as U.S. History to 1865). Then you consider your overarching goal. After you gain clarity on that, you construct “units” (or in the case of an exhibition “sections”) that deepen and challenge that thesis. You provide tools for your audience to make sense of and test your assumptions.

What kinds of work experience did you have, prior to going to the museum, that made it possible for you to get a position as a curator? What advice would you give to graduate students in history and other people interested in making a similar transition? 

My experience is very dated in many ways. There was no pathway into the museum field in the 1980s. In college, I kind of felt my way through it and studied history, art history, and literature. I kept looking for history with a life in it. Today that would be in a studies program but they really weren’t developed much in my day. So I became a history major. When I told my advisor that I wanted to work in museums, he was disappointed with me. I am not sure he took me seriously after that. But I was pretty determined so I found my own way. When I graduated from college I lived at home, worked, and saved money and then applied for an internship at the Smithsonian. Against all odds, that turned into a temporary job where I worked on the Inventory Team, then as a museum technician, and finally as a research assistant for Gary Kulik, the Chair of History and Culture. Over those three years, I got pretty restless because I wanted to be more creative and do history. But only curators could do that. And to be a curator, I was told, you had to have a PhD. So I applied to the Department of American Civilization at Penn which had a strong program for material culture and Southern history, and remarkable scholars in African American Studies. After being credentialed in this way, I again felt the pressure to conform and became a professor rather than a curator. It turns out this was great experience. I taught at Rhodes College and at the University of Mississippi, got tenure and all that and then got restless again. I was working on a book about museums and the reconstruction of race when a job came open at the Smithsonian. I jumped at the opportunity. I think my restlessness paid off in the end. Every deviation from the straight path gave me experience I could build on later.

As far as advice to others? Make sure to study material culture and think about it seriously as a form of evidence. A PhD is helpful but not always necessary. Teaching, either formally or informally, is critical. Don’t take “no” for an answer and slough off disrespect. Jobs and job descriptions may define you and define your value, but life’s too short to let that stop you.


We really appreciate Dr. Bercaw’s willingness to chat with us. If you have questions for her, please leave them in the comments! To learn more about the future of Reconstruction studies, please check out our online forum and the rest of our March 2017 issue, available on Project Muse.

Postscript to “Reconstructing Memory”

The March 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era includes the article “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina the National Park’s First Reconstruction Unit.” It addresses a vigorous effort at the national and local level that began in December of 2000 and aimed to establish a new National Park to interpret the Reconstruction era through Congressional action; this initial action failed. The white supremacist interpretation of Reconstruction, flamed by controversies over removing the Confederate flag from the top of the state house in the 1990s and 2000, still had a strong hold on South Carolina. More than a decade later, and in the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, historians and preservationists embraced a new strategy to bypass Congress that finally succeeded.

During Obama’s last two years in office, advocates of a Reconstruction site realized that Congressional gridlock left a Presidential action as the only way forward. Many of the key players who had rallied around the cause in 2000 were pivotal in 2017 in pulling all the pieces together to make this designation possible. On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving office, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County.[1] The act identified four properties that would be part of the monument: Brick Baptist Church; Darrah Hall, on the Penn Campus; the firehouse on Craven Street in Beaufort, which is within walking distance of over fifty relevant sites; and the site of Camp Saxton, on the Naval Hospital grounds and where thousands freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered to hear it read on January 1, 1863.

Darrah Hall, on the grounds of Penn Center, is one of the four buildings designated by President Obama’s act to be part of a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

For decades the National Park Service (NPS) had been aware of a gaping hole in its telling of the story of Reconstruction. Beginning with the 2000 initiative, the NPS has maintained communication and provided support to individuals in Beaufort working toward a Reconstruction Monument. Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the NPS, had long held that too many Americans continued to think of the Reconstruction era as “a disaster” instead of seeing it as a time when big questions about democracy, race, education, war, and region were being played out.[2]

In 2015 the NPS completed four years of programing, seminars, and special events to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The time had arrived to move forward on the difficult Reconstruction era, a period that ended slavery and brought great hope, but also frustrations and disappointments. In April 2015, NPS commissioned Associate Professors Kate Masur of Northwestern University and Gregory Downs of the University of California–Davis to prepare a National Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction that would explore potential places for telling the story. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the fall of 2016, the two historians wrote, “we found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and the richness of interpretive possibility.”[3]

Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior, and Eric Foner, the foremost historian of the Reconstruction Era, came to Beaufort in 2000 to explore possibilities of a Reconstruction monument. Both continued to play crucial roles both behind the scenes and in public settings after the 2003 attempt failed. Babbitt acted as the broker between the local efforts and the Obama administration. In 2009 he helped found the Conservation Lands Foundation, an organization headquartered in Colorado that quietly worked to protect the nation’s significant landscapes.[4] Following up on extensive conversations with the Department of Interior, Congressional leaders, and Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Babbitt visited Beaufort County in April 2015 to discuss specific sites for a possible Reconstruction Monument. Foner, an ever strong and steady champion for the project, frequently emphasized that Beaufort County was the best place in the country for a new unit of NPS to tell the Reconstruction story. The urgency for Foner rested in his belief that “for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.” Furthermore, he often stressed how relevant the Reconstruction era is to current discussions of the definition of citizenship, the rights that citizens should enjoy, the relative powers of the federal government, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.[5]

On the Congressional front, on May 26, 2016, Representative James Clyburn introduced H.R. 5358, the Penn School Reconstruction Era National Monument Act. Representative Mark Sanford, Beaufort County’s Representative, joined as a cosponsor. Representatives Clyburn and Sanford were well aware that most monuments designated under the Antiquities Act had first been proposed for some sort of protective designation in legislation.[6]

Local supporters included some of those present in 2000; however, an effective new leader on the scene was Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. He served as the central point of communication between Babbitt, the NPS, Congressional leaders, and local property owners of land or sites that could possibly be a part of the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. After securing passage of a resolution by the Beaufort City Council in October 2016 to support a monument, he coordinated with other local mayors and community leaders for a wide array of organizations to pass similar resolutions.

The most difficult steps in the process were the negotiations between Department of Interior staff and those in Beaufort County who wished to make their property a part of the Reconstruction Monument. Many phone calls and meetings occurred to work through the tedious language on boundaries and easements that had to be hammered out in precise language. For example, Penn Center was deeding only Darrah Hall to the NPS but there needed to be wording about easements for the driveway to access the property as well as shared use of nearby bathroom facilities.[7]

To gauge local support for the Reconstruction Monument, the Director of the NPS, Jonathan Jarvis, and Congressman Clyburn brought delegations from Washington on December 16, 2016, to hold a public hearing. Expressing a ground swell of support, enthusiastic allies filled Brick Church on St. Helena Island. It was standing room only in the space where Penn Center held the first classes for formerly enslaved people in 1862. Over forty people–elected officials, middle school students, historians, leaders of non-profit organizations, and residents who traced their families back to the early days of the Penn Center–all spoke in moving ways about the importance of finally telling the Reconstruction story. Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said the new monument at Saxton Camp provided “the opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation . . . that brings to life the Reconstruction story.” The Mayor of Hilton Head, David Bennett, supported the effort but asked that Mitchelville, the site of the first self-governed freedmen’s community on Hilton Head, be included among the designated sites. Clyburn responded that the recommended properties were just a beginning and that the effort did not need to be limited. No voice of opposition was heard. Director Jarvis, who said he had attended many public hearings, was clearly moved by the outpouring of support and the heart felt words expressed. Michael Boulware Moore, Robert Smalls’s great-great grandson, echoed a frequent message that “now is the time.”[8]

Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and Representative James Clyburn confer during a visit on December 15, 2016, to the site of Saxton Camp where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time on January 1, 1863 to those freed by it. Photograph courtesy of Page Miller.

In Mayor Keyserling’s internet newsletter on February 28, 2017, he noted that local parties and NPS representatives were making progress at establishing the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. The NPS hopes to have an interim superintendent in place in a few months and plans are underway for a grand celebration in mid to late March to celebrate this new unit.[9]

For all the key players–Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Eric Foner, the NPS, Congressional leaders and Beaufortonians, all who had long known there was something very special about these historic sites and properties–the designation of a Reconstruction Monument brought forth a sigh of relief and a shout of joy. It will be three years before this new monument is fully up and running. Then the National Park Service will finally have the opportunities to tell the story of Reconstruction that has been either ignored or distorted for so long.

[1] Emma Dumain, “Just Under the Wire, Obama Establishes National Monument to Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County,” Post and Courier, January 12, 2017, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/just-under-the-wire-obama-establishes-national-monument-to-reconstruction/article_cb26b062-d91b-11e6-bf8b-7fd195453416.html.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/arts/park-service-project-would-address-the-reconstruction-era.html?ref=arts; Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2016), 5.

[3] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “The Perfect Spot for a Reckoning with Reconstruction,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016, sec. Opinions, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-perfect-spot-for-a-reckoning-with-reconstruction/2016/10/07/b884c1c0-7f60-11e6-9070-5c4905bf40dc_story.html?utm_term=.fcac7e29844c.

[4] Jonathan Romeo, “Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Presses Conservation Values,” The Durango Herald, November 12, 2015, https://durangoherald.com/articles/97805-former-interior-secretary-bruce-babbitt-presses-conservation-values.

[5] Eric Foner, “Struggle and Progress,” Jacobin, no. 18 (Summer 2015), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/eric-foner-reconstruction-abolitionism-republican-party-lincoln-emancipation/; Bill Rauch, “Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/can-the-south-make-room-for-reconstruction/500189/.

[6] Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, H.R. 5358, 114th Cong. (2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5358/text; Carol Hardy Vincent, “National Monuments and the Antiquities Act” (Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41330.pdf.

[7] These details were discussed in a conversation between Page Putnam Miller and Billy Keyserling on December 15, 2016.

[8] Page Putnam Miller was in attendance and spoke at the meeting. Stephen Fastenau, “Clyburn, Park Service Hear Overwhelming Support for Reconstruction Monument,” Beaufort Gazette, December 15, 2016.

[9] Billy Keyserling, “Update: Reconstruction Era Monument,” Live Work Stay with Billy K, February 28, 2017, http://www.liveworkstaybeaufort.com/update-reconstruction-era-monument/.

Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Page Putnam Miller received her PhD in 1979 from the University of Maryland. From 1980 to 2000, she served as executive director of a Washington advocacy organization, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation "Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction." She will begin a position as assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University in the fall.

Editors’ Note: March 2017 Issue

We are very pleased to announce the publication of our March 2017 special issue. Copies will be in your mailboxes soon, but to tide you over until then, here is the editors’ note from our guest editors, Kate Masur and Greg Downs!


One hundred and fifty years since Reconstruction, we believe now is a propitious time to take stock of the scholarly literature and public memory that shape our collective understanding of that crucial era. Almost thirty years after the publication of Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, we are in the midst of a deep, searching exploration of how to define, analyze, and narrate the crucial period that began during the Civil War and extended, arguably, until the close of the century. Given the vibrancy of the field and growing attention to the public history of the era, it seems wise not to try to pin down exactly where we stand but to take stock, advance ideas, and generate conversation and debate.

To assess past and present scholarship and open paths to future work, the Journal of the Civil War Era commissioned scholars to write on discrete topics within the broader world of Reconstruction history. The forum on the future of Reconstruction, introduced and edited by Luke E. Harlow, features brief introductory notes in these pages by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Gary Gerstle, Thomas C. Holt, Martha S. Jones, Mark A. Noll, Adrienne Petty, Lisa Tetrault, Elliott West, and Kidada E. Williams. Each short piece published here serves as an introduction to a longer, freely available essay available at the journal’s Web site.

Reconstruction historiography developed within a broader literary response to the end of the Civil War and to the ongoing transformations of the nation. In his provocative historiographical essay, law and literature scholar Brook Thomas challenges historians to revisit early Reconstruction historiography and to see it in the context of twentieth-century debates about the nature of evidence, narrative, and history itself.

Beyond historical writing, the era of Reconstruction has been difficult to publicly commemorate. Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor give us the first detailed study of an early twenty-first-century effort to create a National Park Service site devoted to the era. Beaufort, South Carolina, is at the heart of the piece, which explores the failure of a project that garnered support locally and at high levels of government. At issue here is how and where people learn about history and whom they trust to explain it.

Reconstruction remains a crucial and sometimes confusing area to teach. In her essay, Hannah Rosen discusses the approaches she and others bring to the subject in the classroom, focusing on using the period as an opportunity to teach about the history of race and racism.

Finally, in a roundtable on Reconstruction and public memory, David M. Prior moderates a discussion among four professors who have been variously involved in public history projects—Beverly Bond, Thomas J. Brown, Eric Foner, and Salamishah Tillet—along with Nancy Bercaw of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Jennifer Taylor of the Equal Justice Initiative. Their theme is the challenges and possibilities of encouraging public engagement with the era of Reconstruction.

While it is clear that certain themes will remain central to the study of the post–Civil War Era—emancipation and abolition, racial formation, labor, state building, constitutional change, and enfranchisement—the essays published here remind us of the protean nature of a period that, a century and a half later, remains open to new historical questions and dramatic reinterpretation. Our hope is that this special issue inspires further discussion and debate about where this era’s future might lie.

First National Monument to Reconstruction Will Become a Reality

On January 12, 2017, President Obama signed an executive order designating five sites near Beaufort, South Carolina, as a National Parks Service monument. This will be the first NPS site to commemorate Reconstruction, and it comes after many years of work. Throughout his presidency, Obama has supported the creation of a more inclusive National Parks system, and Civil War historians have lent their expertise and guidance throughout this process.[1]

This site’s significance cannot be overstated. Public memory of Reconstruction is often fraught with inaccuracies and biases, and a historic site that draws on federal resources has the potential to help all Americans learn more about this pivotal—yet understudied—period of our history. As Kate Masur has noted, “the new Reconstruction Era National Monument can help Americans grapple with difficult aspects of the nation’s history, including slavery, emancipation, racism, and violence.” Greg Downs concurs, stating that this is “a long overdue moment, and one of the most significant expansions of the National Park Service since its founding.”[2]

Please join us in celebrating this groundbreaking accomplishment. We extend special congratulations to our associate editors, Greg Downs and Kate Masur, who played a key role in this lobbying effort! They have also edited a special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era for March 2017 that addresses the future of Reconstruction studies, and which includes an article on Beaufort by Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller. We look forward to seeing this research in print, and we hope you will find it to be a valuable resource.

[1] Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, “Obama Names Five New National Monuments, Including Southern Civil Rights Sites,” Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/obama-names-five-new-national-monuments-including-southern-civil-rights-sites/2017/01/12/7f5ce78c-d907-11e6-9a36-1d296534b31e_story.html?utm_term=.ce3df8461239 (accessed January 12, 2017).

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “President Obama Designates First National Monument Dedicated to Reconstruction,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/arts/president-obama-designates-national-monuments-to-civil-rights-history.html (accessed January 12, 2017).

Did Disenfranchisement Give the South an Electoral Advantage?

There has been much recent discussion of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which boosted slaveholding states’ representation in the Electoral College by including for apportionment a population that received no benefits from government. Scholars have debated how this influenced national politics under slavery, but this conversation applies to the post-emancipation world as well.[1]

Let us start in 1860. With the three-fifths clause operating, the slaveholding states controlled 120 of 303 electoral votes (EV), or 40 percent. The free states desired a “0/5″ scenario, in which slaveholding states received no representation benefit for the enslaved population. In this case, the South would have controlled only 35 percent of all EV. In 1860, the three-fifths clause thus gave the South a substantial 5 percent bump.[2]

Under the South’s desired “5/5″ scenario — the one in which all slaves counted for representation — the South would have controlled 42 percent of all EV. That is a more modest bump of 2 percent (about 7 EV) over what it actually enjoyed under the 3/5 ratio.

Emancipation enhanced the South’s share of national power by propelling 3.9 million former slaves into the ranks of the population used as a basis for apportionment. With slavery gone, each former bondsperson would now be counted as a whole person rather than three-fifths of one. In principle, this was a “5/5″ scenario, in which all people (former slaves among them) were considered for purposes of representation.

In the 1872 election cycle, which was the first to rely on post-emancipation census figures, the South controlled 138 of 366 (38 percent) EV. Had former slaves not been included (a “0/5″ scenario), the South would have controlled only 90 of 319 (29 percent) EV. The emancipated freedpeople thus gave the South a 9 percent bump in representation in the Electoral College.

It was good that emancipation boosted Southern political power so long as those added to the apportionment population had access to the political process through the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship to African Americans, and the franchise to black men. But under the conditions of complete disfranchisement, which southern states came close to meeting around the turn of the 20th century, no African Americans received direct representation in Congress.[3] At that point, emancipation’s boost in Southern power worked (some might say ironically) against African Americans, who struggled against racist state regimes whose disproportionate strength in national government blacks’ presence was artificially inflating. Imagine trying to get federal anti-lynching legislation passed against Southern states that had worked to remove blacks from the voting population, and were stronger than they should have been because of it.

By 1900, African Americans were being largely expelled from the political process. Their concerns went unrepresented, and yet their numbers still boosted Southern representation in the Electoral College. Effectively, the country ran on the “5/5″ principle even though the reality was that close to “0/5″ of blacks could vote for their own representatives.

In slavery, this desire had resulted in the diminishment of Southern power. At the constitutional convention in 1787, representatives from northern states had bargained the South down to counting only 3/5 of each slave for representation. After the war, Republicans had sought to carry this principle into freedom by Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which provided for the diminishment of a state’s enumerated population in proportion to the proportion of voters it disenfranchised. That failed, though, as did the 15th Amendment’s voting protections, when the Supreme Court began (from the 1870s on) permitting ostensibly race-neutral but intentionally race-specific disfranchisement measures. This gave white supremacists the best of both worlds — they received the enhanced political power that went with a larger population, without the obligation to serve that population.

The numbers for 1900 bear this out. In the “5/5″ reality, the states that had held slaves in 1860 (“the South”) had 159 EV, or 35 percent of the total. Under a “0/5″ scenario, in which the South would lose representation for the blacks it refused to enfranchise, the South would have had only 112 EV, or 28 percent of a smaller House of Representatives.

Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Information from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The South thus gained a lot from disenfranchisement. At the turn of the century, its largely disenfranchised African Americans gave it a 7 percent bump in the Electoral College, which was even larger than the 4-5 percent bump the three-fifths clause usually gave under slavery. And, as before the war, this was a population included only to boost representation, for it could make virtually no claim on the political process at all.

The Electoral College has always provided the rule set for selecting the President of the United States. The framers of the Constitution hoped that this membrane between the voters and the office of President would insulate the electoral process from the “heats and ferments” of public opinion, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 68.[4] But the cost has been high, for anti-democratic politicians have always been willing to game the system. One might have thought that ending slavery would have ended the compromise embodied in the three-fifths clause — a system that John Quincy Adams came to call “morally and politically vicious.”[5] It was not to be. Of the many paradoxes to the “freedom” that followed slavery, one of the most neglected may be this: in the era of Jim Crow, ending slavery only made the white South stronger.

[1] “The Three-Fifths Clause,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/legal/docs2.html (accessed December 9, 2016). For recent discussion of the Electoral College, see for example, “Slavery, Democracy, and the Racialized Roots of the Electoral College,” AAIHS, http://www.aaihs.org/slavery-democracy-and-the-racialized-roots-of-the-electoral-college/ (accessed November 14, 2016); “Is slavery the reason for the Electoral College?” CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2016/11/22/why-was-the-electoral-college-created-slavery-orig.cnn (accessed November 22, 2016); “Yes, The Electoral College Really Is A Vestige Of Slavery. It’s Time To Get Rid Of It.” WGBH News, http://news.wgbh.org/2016/12/06/news/yes-electoral-college-really-vestige-slavery-its-time-get-rid-it (accessed December 6, 2016).

[2] All figures based on my analysis of data from Susan B. Carter et al., eds., Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); “Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. Historical, Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: the United States, 1790-1970 (ICPSR 3),” [Computer file] (Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 197?). A note of caution: there are many ways of building counterfactual scenarios with these numbers. I have made some plausible but not airtight assumptions, such as that the apportionment basis for each cycle would not change despite having fewer people in the apportionment population. Bottom line: republish these numbers at your own risk.

[3] Absolute disfranchisement was the goal, but it was rarely complete. I make no claims here about how many were actually disenfranchised. This is about hypothetical extremes.

[4] “Federalist No. 68,” The Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed68.asp (accessed December 9, 2016).

[5] Josiah Quincy, Memoir of the Life of John Quincy Adams (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Co., 1860), 108-9.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

“A History They Can Use”: The Memphis Massacre and Reconstruction’s Public History Terrain

On May 20th and 21st, a group of scholars, students, and public historians gathered at the University of Memphis to discuss a dramatic event often overlooked in the narrative of Reconstruction, the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The symposium, and the Memphis Massacre Project, informed the public about the massacre and began a difficult and necessary conversation about how Americans approach the history of Reconstruction–how we rethink and repurpose existing spaces and create new public spaces to reflect on that history. The symposium’s directors, Dr. Beverly Bond and Dr. Susan O’Donovan, spoke with Muster about their work and their hopes for the project’s future.

From the capture of Memphis by Union forces in June 1862 through the final surrender of the Confederacy in April 1865, Memphis experienced dramatic demographic, social, and economic change. Thousands of enslaved African Americans fled area farms and plantations for sanctuary in the city. These new arrivals were housed in camps near the Union Army’s Ft. Pickering, on President’s Island, and in surrounding areas. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African American men were allowed to enlist into segregated units of the U.S.C.T. Some of these soldiers were garrisoned at Ft. Pickering and a U.S.C.T unit from Ft. Pickering was among the black soldiers killed in the 1864 Ft. Pillow massacre, about forty miles north of the city.

The city’s white population also changed during the Civil War. Some Confederate sympathizers left the city to fight with the Confederate army or to refuge deeper into Confederate-held areas. Union military personnel, northern businessmen or war profiteers, teachers and other agents of northern missionary aid societies, and Freedman’s Bureau officials and workers poured into the city. As conflict wound down, some self-exiled white Memphians, returned to the city, hoping to take advantage of President Andrew Johnson’s generous amnesty programs and to reclaim homes and other property. Control of city services shifted back to civilian authorities.

These Memphis populations – newly emancipated African Americans, former Confederates (including many former slaveholders), former free people of color, ethnic whites (including many Irish immigrants), northern military and civilians – were negotiating the new terrain of freedom in the post-Civil War south. As was the case across much of the former Confederacy, white Southerners wanted to confine black Southerners to the narrowest of freedoms. White Memphians were willing to concede the end of slavery, the right to marry, and the right of former slaves to assume responsibility for the economic support of their families, but were not willing to extend full equality, full citizenship or even the fullest exercise of free labor to their black neighbors. Touting the presence of “surplus” African Americans in the overcrowded city, and beginning as early as fall 1865, white civilians and city government officials, sometimes with the complicity of the Union Army and the Freedman’s Bureau, encouraged (or pressured) black Memphians to return to the countryside to satisfy the labor needs of white farmers and planters.

Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from the Memphis Massacre Project site, http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

This volatile situation in the spring of 1866 engendered a series of minor confrontations between black soldiers at Ft. Pickering and members of the Memphis police, which escalated into a much larger massacre, a three-day wave of violence that left at least forty-six African American men, women and children dead. Other black Memphians were beaten and/or driven out of the city. Every African American church and schoolhouse was destroyed, homes and businesses were burglarized and burned, and at least five women were raped. Within weeks, a Congress that had already been at logger-heads with President Johnson over Reconstruction policy, dispatched a delegation to Memphis to investigate the massacre and its origins. What they learned, and how they responded to that new knowledge, led to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, changed the course of Reconstruction, and with it, the constitutional underpinnings of the nation. And then, as a nation, we “forgot” about Memphis along with the rest of Reconstruction’s history.

Bringing Reconstruction back into public view poses a number of challenges, both political and practical. The first, of course, stems from the fact that for 150 years, this history has been confined near exclusively to academic circles. Until May 1, 2016, when the Memphis NAACP unveiled a marker to commemorate the victims of the Memphis Massacre, there had been no National Park Service recognition of any aspect of this history anywhere. For reasons best explained by Cecelia O’Leary, David Blight, and others who work on the politics of memory, Reconstruction has been denied a place on our national historical landscape. But aside from having to carve out commemorative space that has for more than a century been claimed for marbled generals, Civil War battlefield sites, and more recently, Confederate battle symbols, Reconstruction didn’t happen in any particular or clearly defined place.   Unfolding more as a guerilla action or grassroots insurgency, Reconstruction worked itself out wherever people might meet – on workshop floors, inside white people’s homes, on plantations and farms. This has made it hard for historians to identify a physical location for an interpretive site or a monument. Still, there were moments when debates over black freedom flared largely and violently, and as Kate Masur and Greg Downs have observed, those acts of public violence can both be plotted on a map and used to open up discussion about a deliberately “forgotten” past. The Memphis Massacre of May 1866 gave us that chance.

Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.
Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

What we quickly realized, however, was that teaching an event like the Memphis Massacre required teaching a wider and deeper historical context too. Reconstruction is such a cypher that no one knows how to think about it, or where to fit it into our national narrative. But in doing more to teach Reconstruction, we stumbled onto what turned out to be a winning strategy for making the Memphis Massacre meaningful to a 21st-century audience. By broadening our field of inquiry, our audiences quickly came to see that what happened in Memphis in 1866 was more than an idiosyncratic episode of only local interest. By broadening the story, they saw that what happened in Memphis is key to knowing how the nation we live in today came to be. As a number of our May symposium speakers revealed, many of the legal and constitutional rights we now take for granted owe their origins to the nation’s response the Memphis Massacre, and most especially, to the role played by former slaves in prompting those changes.

Indeed, if there was one aspect to this history that hooked our audiences most securely, we would venture to say it was the degree to which Black Lives–and black truths!–Mattered in 1866. Congress listened. A nation listened. And the outcome was a radical shift in American civil and political life. Imagine, for instance, where we would be today without the 14th Amendment, which Congress put the finishing touches on in the wake of the Memphis Massacre. Imagine where we would be today if black truths and black testimony carried the same weight that they did in 1866 when a congressional delegation took those testimonies seriously. For most of the people with whom we worked on the symposium this spring, this aspect of the Memphis story resonated the most deeply. Here was a history they could use.

We brought all these themes together in our capstone event, a two-day public symposium held on May 20-21 at the University of Memphis. It featured historians and scholars from across the country, including Robert K. Sutton, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  Presenting to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, their presentations pried open what has for 150-years been the carefully concealed history of Reconstruction, its legacies, and the significant role that Memphis played in both. The discussions that followed each presentation were lively, informed, and illuminating.  We learned much over these two days: about ourselves, our city, our nation, and the role of public memory in public life.

A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the "Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866" Facebook page.
A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866” Facebook page.

Now that we’ve brought the Memphis Massacre and through it, something of Reconstruction, to the surface, we intend to keep it there. But in the absence of a brick and mortar interpretive center, our efforts to commemorate, remember, and understand one of the watershed moments in national history will unfold in the digital domain. As it develops, the Memphis Massacre website will be museum, schoolroom, and public forum. In a sense, the amorphous nature of a digital interpretive center is appropriate given the amorphous character of Reconstruction’s history. Anyone, anywhere, at any time will be able to visit our site to learn more about this historic period. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can relive our May 2016 symposium, all of which was filmed and is now available on the Memphis Massacre blog. Panel four, “The Memphis Massacre,” aired recently on C-SPAN3 and panel 5, “The Radicalization of Reconstruction,” will air on the same channel on July 23. Both sessions will also be available in the C-SPAN Civil War video library.

Our plan in coming months is to continue adding new resources and teaching materials, including primary sources. We will use our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to promote Reconstruction commemorative initiatives in other communities as well as nineteenth-century African American history more generally.   We’ve found our website and social media “machine” to be very powerful and effective teaching and advocacy tools; our intent is to keep using them to permanently break what have been long-standing silences and to bring about a deeper public awareness of our past and the people and events that have shaped it.

Susan O'Donovan and Beverly Bond

Susan Eva O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. A former editor at the Freedmen & Southern Society Project and author of Becoming Free in the Cotton South, Professor O'Donovan specializes in African American history with a focus on the transition from slavery to freedom in the Civil War era. Beverly Greene Bond is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians, Professor Bond specializes in nineteenth-century African American history with a focus on African American women and their experiences.

Right and Wrong in “The Free State of Jones”: Making Sense of the Civil War Film Tradition

No one quite knows what to make of “The Free State of Jones,” the latest big-budget feature film about the history of the Civil War. Some have praised it as the “final word on racism’s vicious legacy” while others have lambasted it for engaging in “the passive violence of distortion.” All this has left the future of the genre in doubt. In the wake of the film’s disappointing opening weekend, Variety wonders whether there is money to be made in “quality movies for adults with top talent” like this, which hope to contend with the successful formulas superhero and fantasy franchises. “The Free States of Jones” winds up accomplishing considerably more than its critics assert, and yet still much less than the genre of Civil War films needs it to.

Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones
Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones.

More than other recent films on the Civil War era, “The Free States of Jones” melds the racial politics of slavery with the politics of the nation’s greatest conflict. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013) was built on one of the slave narratives that helped fuel the antislavery cause, but understandably its plot never made it to the consummation of the abolitionists’ campaign. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) explored how the Civil War led to emancipation, but managed the feat while marginalizing the very subjects of emancipation, relegating them to roles as onlookers and reminders of the moral gravity of the work undertaken by national leaders, who are white men all.

In contrast, “The Free State of Jones” is centrally concerned with the intersections of race and slavery with the Civil War and its domestic politics — with some interesting gender complications thrown in as well. In a film tradition typified by reconciliationist fantasies, evasive race politics, and unexamined gender norms, this alone situates it on progressive terrain. Its story accomplishes even more, for it is the tale of Newton Knight, the Mississippi native who led a rebellion within a rebellion, establishing the interracial Free State of Jones as a challenge to a Confederacy built on class privilege and white supremacy.

The film quickly establishes its moral order, making no bones about its objections to slavery nor its Unionist sympathies. Its protagonist, Newton Knight, comes from a region of Mississippi as poor in slaves as in other forms of wealth. As the Confederate government demands ever greater sacrifices to defend itself against Union invasion (it has become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”), the disillusioned soldier-gone-AWOL leads his community in rejecting Confederate authority and establishing an egalitarian republic. “Every man’s a man,” Knight recites as the key principle of the new state, a statement that concedes to gender norms something the film itself challenges. Women take on strong roles throughout, to the point where pre-teen girls show down Confederate cavalry with hastily assembled shotguns. Knight’s love relationships cross barriers of class and propriety, elevating his enslaved partner Rachel to a prominent (though secondary) role. Indeed the legacy of this union is depicted in the plight of Knight’s mixed-race great grandson Davis Knight, who in frequent flash-forwards is tried for marrying a white woman despite having no discernible African ancestry (more on which later).

This is a film for the post-Charleston age, which does not soft-pedal its cultural politics for fear of offending large segments of its audience. It is unabashedly anti-Confederate, offering an ideal of class unity across racial lines. Resisting the Confederacy represents the central external challenge, but achieving cross-racial community constitutes the film’s primary internal struggle, and the higher moral goal the resistance itself serves. “You cannot own a child of God,” cites Moses, Knight’s closest African American ally, but it will take more than a rejection of property in man to unite the people of Jones.

The film’s delicate work around the N-word illustrates screenwriter Garry Ross’s skill at accomplishing this. In its first half hour, the film assiduously places “Negro” on the lips of white southerners who might be expected to use its vulgar alternative. But when a white resident of Jones uses the N-word to scold a black resident for seeking an equal share of food, the risk of division becomes apparent. Knight lectures the bigots, warning them to appreciate their black neighbors “before a whole new war breaks out here.” The script thus leverages the word’s historical appearance against its modern volatility. At some point, Knight says, “everybody is just somebody else’s nigger” — a statement dismissive of the unique plight of a people singularly subjected to chattel bondage, but necessary for building the cross-racial unity required of the moment. (Later, Knight will respond to a question about whether his community is one of N-words by stating, “Ain’t no niggers up there at all,” reasserting the humanity he shares with African Americans.) The film thus fully embraces a kind of progressive ideal: a polity that, if only briefly, embodies a class alliance of non-elite men and women across racial lines.


To understand the meaning of this achievement requires recalling the history of the Civil War film tradition, which amazingly enough has still not fully assimilated the scholarship and cultural politics of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the old Lost Cause classics (e.g., “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind”) gave way to softened depictions of race in the war. Those like “Shenandoah” (1965) presaged later films by accommodating the presence of African Americans, but at the cost of factoring out the racial issues at the heart of the conflict, and hence its moral significance. Others, such as “Major Dundee” (1965) and “The Undefeated” (1969), depicted the post-war reconciliation of North and South in the struggle against centralizing states. All shared a libertarian ethos that grew into later films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), which can largely be understood as a way of stripping the genre of Confederate sympathy without contending with the moral imperatives raised by slavery. The enemy became war itself, and the demands of powerful state authorities that it justified.

The genre never adopted a template that attempted to contend frankly with slavery. The most likely candidates were 1970s efforts like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973), a critically-hailed television version of Ernest Gaines’s fictional account of a woman who journeyed from slavery to civil rights. Yet it and another television milestone — “Roots” (1977) — failed to inaugurate a new era of Civil War interpretation in American film. When “Glory” (1989), the story of a black Civil War regiment, appeared, it came in the form of an androcentric military tale that failed to follow the story to the end of the war, let alone into the post-war Reconstruction — once mandatory for any epic examination of the era.

“Glory” broke a Vietnam-generated logjam on Civil War films, but most that have come out since then have seemed satisfied to let it mark an end rather than a beginning. Having tipped its hat to the role of race in the war, the genre largely excused itself from exploring it any further. “Gettysburg” (1993) put on screen Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), a popular novel that seems to excuse the racism of its central northern protagonist, Joshua Chamberlain. The follow-up, “Gods and Generals” (2003), is a notorious modern classic of Lost Cause mythology. Other films make similarly suspicious elisions. Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil” (1999) depicts border-state Confederate guerillas as historical underdogs (much like his Taiwanese compatriots), while the film version of Charles Frazer’s Confederate Odyssey, “Cold Mountain” (2003), is set in an Appalachia so far removed from the plantation zone that few blacks, slave or free, ever appear.

As recent works such as “12 Years” and “Lincoln” attest, the film tradition has become gradually more willing to focus on slavery itself. But it is frankly amazing that so many years have passed — six decades since Brown v. Board of Education, a half-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forty years since the Bicentennial, and a quarter-century since the genre’s rebirth in “Glory” — without a more incisive cinematic depiction of an era that has served as the subject of some of the most important films of pre-World War II America. Earlier films captured the national mood on race, slavery, class, and gender — while also melding well with contemporary historical scholarship. The rebirthed genre has found it difficult to accomplish the same.

It’s not as if the historical profession hasn’t offered ample fodder for reinterpretations of the period. It would be impossible in so short a space to survey the massive transformations that have struck the historical profession since the Civil Rights Movement, but suffice to say that they have been profound. While pre-Civil Rights era historians once considered the war a needless consequence of a “blundering generation” of politicians, most modern professional scholars cannot imagine its key causes and consequences unrelated to slavery. And once the province of antiquarians’ fetish for battle maneuvers and military personalities, the war is more and more understood as embedded in a broad social and cultural matrix. Maris Vinovskis’s provocative 1989 question, “have social historians lost the Civil War?” can now be answered with a resounding negative. The current scholarship examines an incredibly wide range of questions — from the role of the enslaved in the emergence of the Union’s emancipation policy, to veterans’ problems readjusting to civilian life, to the role of women in border-state guerilla activity.

How do we explain the disjuncture between the scholarship and the films? Has the historical profession failed to teach the public? Or is it something intrinsic to the stories one can tell with the historical materials at hand? Perhaps it is a combination. Telling the historical stories Hollywood likes to tell — of heroic individuals overcoming crisis-ridden personal histories while also working toward a more just society with enhanced freedom for all. But it’s not often that history can be made to serve liberal agendas in feature films while also remaining true to the past.

Consider the negative example of “Gangs of New York” (2002), Martin Scorsese’s effort to re-situate the revenge-driven gangster film in the class politics of the Civil War North. In the film, the protagonist Amsterdam must slay Butcher Bill Cutting, the rival who killed his father. Amsterdam, positioned between his Irish heritage and creole birth, must gather a multicultural force to take down Cutting, whose working-class politics are built on a nativist aversion to foreign immigration. In the film, the climactic fight between the forces of tolerance and intolerance is inexplicably interrupted by the Draft Riots of July 1863, which are depicted as utterly divorced from the moral conflict going on in the city’s underworld. In reality, though, Irish immigrants hostile to fighting for the freedom of African Americans formed the core of the rioters. History thus directly contradicts Scorsese’s script, for immigrant roots did little to build the multicultural tolerance the film so desperately tries to endorse.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves. We give Best-Picture Oscars to films such as “Braveheart” (1995), which relates the birth of “freedom” through the efforts of 13th-century Scottish brigand William Wallace to free his people from the Norman Yoke. The success of such films inspires other efforts, such as Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” (2010), which attributes to the social bandit of lore credit for no less a statement of freedom than the Magna Carta. These Whiggish visions of history — it unfolds as the troubled but inevitable march of progress and liberty — carry easily into the story of the United States, as told in such films as “The Patriot” (2000). Many of the most popular historical movies are thus about white people becoming free, or freeing others. Obviously, this leaves little room for agonizing over the ambiguities of the actual past — of American Revolutionaries holding slaves, or of working-class Irish heroes rioting against black freedom. Too uncomfortable; too difficult.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves…We delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans.

This is affirmed by freedom struggle films that are freed from the rules of history. Science fiction — that most social of film genres — loves to pose challenges to oppression in convenient hypotheticals that offer audiences the requisite resolution (liberty triumphs!) without the attendant difficulties (liberty for whom?). Think of films such as “Star Wars” (1977), “Dune” (1984), “The Matrix” (1999), “Avatar” (2009), and “Elysium” (2013) — as well as “Jones” screenwriter Garry Ross’s own “The Hunger Games” (2012). All concern the politics of liberation; all covertly rehearse the American Revolution and the journey from political slavery to freedom and self-determination. When they appear at all, people of African descent (or various forms of “natives”) do so as objects of the benevolence of a charismatic white protagonist, who in exorcising his (yes, almost always male) personal ghosts also gets to liberate others.

It’s not hard to imagine the thought process involved in green-lighting these film projects and not others. After all, few risk-averse studio executives get excited about trying to market films about black history to audiences that are largely white. In interviews following his portrayal of South African anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 eponymous film, Denzel Washington acknowledged that “because of the reality of economics of a $22-million film, it would be mostly the story of the [white] journalist, Donald Woods,” who escaped South Africa with the martyr’s story. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the brilliant, non-Hollywood “District 9,” which glorifies in rather than camouflages its historical analogy. By and large, though, we delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans’.

This aversion owes partly to objections from African Americans themselves. No matter how true to its source material, “12 Years a Slave” is brutal in its portrayal of slavery. Viewing it is an exercise in civic reverence rather than entertainment. Such films inevitably spawn critics who worry that their popularity may owe as much to the prurience offered in depictions of slaves’ torture as to their moral importance. As Saidiya V. Hartman argued in Scenes of Subjugation (1997), the depiction of brutality on black bodies has been a staple of white allies’ calls for black liberation since the earliest days of antislavery. Others contend that inordinate focus on the past prevents progress in the present. The rapper Snoop Dogg recently offered a candid version of this objection when commenting on the re-make of the miniseries “Roots”: “They going to just to keep beating that shit into our heads about how they did us, huh?… Let’s create our own shit based on today, how we live and how we inspire people today. Black is what’s real. Fuck that old shit.”

Forces conspire, then, to make it risky to depict the most difficult parts of our past in big-budget feature films. In the old formula, works like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” extrapolated from a racist historiography to appeal to even more racist public attitudes; they depicted the redemption of white civilization from a central national authority that has mobilized black savagery in its campaign of vengeance against a people who dared to be “free.” A new formula, nowhere near as sure of itself, is still only slowly emerging, with each entrant into the Civil War-era genre of vital importance in gauging its ultimate direction amidst the shifting winds of our popular historical consciousness.


“The Free State of Jones” must be understood against this backdrop of a film tradition badly lagging behind a scholarly revolution in the ways the Civil War era has been understood. It offers the boldest political vision yet of any Hollywood feature film about the Civil War. More than any other to date, it centers on the class and racial iniquities of slave society, exposing not just the maltreatment of the enslaved, but the impoverishment of non-slaveholding whites as well. But this does not mean it is unassailable. Indeed, the film’s numerous shortcoming reveal much about the sticking places in our historical consciousness, and the challenging work that remains.

Most tellingly, the film partakes of a “white savior” formula that has been the bane of all too many films about the black freedom struggle, from Robert Gould Shaw’s character (Matthew Broderick) in “Glory” to Samuel Bass’s (Brad Pitt) in “12 Years a Slave.” Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight is about as ideal as they come: steadfast and resolute, yet also honorable and sensitive. His demons are all external. He never abuses his authority, loses his cool when it matters, or wrestles with character defects. His courage emboldens those around him, as when Rachel begins resisting the sexual advances of her master; “I couldn’t anymore,” she states. When Knight cannot understand the awe-filled looks of the slave fugitives he keeps free, Rachel explains to him that “nobody done nothing like that for them before.” At points, the film risks descending into “Robin Hood among the maroons,” or “Braveheart meets Solomon Northup.”

To the film’s credit, though, the story it chooses to tell is indeed an extraordinary tale that requires (by Hollywood standards) little departure from the known record — a failing that often fuels scholarly criticism of these films. Whereas “12 Years a Slave” depended on only one source — a slave narrative self-consciously produced in the years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to perform the ideological work of antislavery — the story behind “The Free State of Jones” draws on many sources, from census and genealogical records to oral history and lore. The filmmakers have made a solid choice here, which relieves them of the need to fabricate much. Modern scholarship shows that the film is correct in moving the portrayal of dissention on the Confederate home front beyond its function as pretext in “Cold Mountain.” Ultimately the Confederacy lost because it could not conscript the huge fraction of its population necessary to stave off a numerically superior foe. Whether it came in the form of resentment toward the need to maintain the plantation police state through measures such as the twenty Negro law, or whether it came in the form of individual calculations weighing family security against the value of an independent Confederate state, homefront support proved decisive to Confederate defeat.

At a finer degree of resolution, it is surely forgivable that “Jones” (like many historical films) constructs composite figures to condense the cast. Lieutenant Barbour, for example, stands in for the many Confederate officials who deprived Jones County residents of cotton, livestock, and foodstuffs during the war. More critically, the filmmakers could not resist the urge for period detail not found in the record. We first encounter the fictional fugitive slave Moses confined in a horrible spiked collar, but I’m aware of no mention of this in the historical evidence surrounding the Jones uprising. Clearly, the filmmakers have borrowed the famous image of Wilson Chinn, an emancipated Louisiana freedman who in 1863 posed for a Union photographer in such a torture device. The resulting carte de visit likely served as propaganda, confirming the value of the fight against slavery in the northern public mind. Static images of African American workers in the field likewise recall contemporary photographs. (The film cleverly uses one of these staged scenes to suggest how little changed from before to after emancipation.) In toto, though, such gestures are not uncommon to historical feature films, and do not intrude on interpretations of scholars such as Victoria Bynum and Sally Jenkins, whose conclusions on the Jones uprising are, admittedly, often speculative. But they make “Jones” no less inaccurate than Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a work that lavishly touted its debt to professional historian Doris Kearns Goodwin yet departed from the evidence in many film-like ways.

Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana--Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863). Courtesy Library of Congress.
Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana–also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863).
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The biggest historical problem in “Jones” is also its most important feature. The pre-World War II film tradition around the Civil War notoriously posed the Reconstruction that followed the war as central to its themes. While Scarlett O’Hara merely stumbled upon the burning of Atlanta, the post-war years were her real hardship. In “The Birth of a Nation,” the war itself is merely pre-text to the real calamity that is to follow an honorable brothers’ war. Following the Civil Rights revolution, “Jane Pittman” and “Roots” sought to radically reinterpret Reconstruction as African Americans’ fight to make freedom meaningful, but the new vision never took hold in cinema. “Beloved” (1989), Oprah Winfrey’s beautiful evocation of Toni Morrison’s novel, is set in Reconstruction but is not about it. Not since “Sommersby” (1993) have audiences been treated to a Hollywood film with a meaningful setting in the immediate post-war period. That film used the end of the war as an excuse to narrate a soldier’s return home, much as in “Cold Mountain.” Sommersby’s antagonist is ultimately foiled by his incapacity to check his racial prejudice — the same motif as in “O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) — but the film is really about identity and relationship rather than politics. Spielberg’s story of the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t even get to its final ratification in December 1865; it ends with Lincoln’s death in April. And, according to its erroneous opening subtitle, “Django Unchained” takes place in 1859, “one year before the Civil War”; we never get to explore the life Django later crafted with Broomhilda.

“Jones” is the first major modern film to take Reconstruction seriously, and this alone makes it remarkable. That the film stumbles in this pioneering endeavor is a subject not for dismissal but contemplation. Once the Jones community is saved from impending extermination by Union victory, hope that the biracial community will thrive is reduced to despair. Government promises of forty acres and a mule are left unfulfilled, leaving black workers to toil in the fields just as they had before emancipation. “We free and we ain’t free,” says Moses. This apt summation feels clichéd to students of the subject, but does the necessary work of establishing a popular narrative for many unaccustomed to it.

The film should also be credited for portraying the Black Codes, the series of measures passed by the first southern state governments after Reconstruction. Crafted in 1865-66 by legislatures filled with former Confederates who had been pardoned on lenient terms by Lincoln’s inept successor Andrew Johnson, the codes severely limited the civil rights and working lives of former slaves. Among the most hated of their provisions were “apprenticeship” laws that compelled the children of former slaves to perform unpaid agricultural work for white planters. Knight saves Moses’s child from such a fate, but the film ignores the broader consequences of the laws, which led directly to the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibiting states from passing laws that discriminate against specific classes of people.

Inexplicably, this goes unmentioned, and we proceed directly from the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to the Fifteenth, which passed in 1869 — two full years after Congress took over Reconstruction and undermined racial restrictions on the vote. What follows is a jumbled story of decline and disunity that mirrors the community’s rise in reverse symmetry. We somehow jump from 1867, when the first open elections were held in Mississippi, to 1875, when a subtitle tells us that in 1875 the Republicans garnered only two votes in Jones County. The film neglects the intervening years of black and Republican achievement, fast-forwarding to their overthrow. African Americans seek to organize Republican votes, but too many whites fear the retribution of white terrorists who murder black organizers. Elections are lost to fraud and the church, the community’s symbol of civic unity and political organization, is burned to the ground. In the end, despite Knight’s persistence, his community cannot be saved by the national state, for that state itself has failed in its resolve to protect the rights it went to war to win.

The film’s concatenated timeline of Reconstruction is not exceptional. “Birth of a Nation,” for example, completely omitted the period of Andrew Johnson’s rule, and thus the entire premise of Congressional Reconstruction. But if we are to see more films examining the period, it will be important to craft a narrative that makes sense. This is no small feat, for if the moral purpose of the Civil War remains open to debate, the meaning of Reconstruction is truly challenging. We are still waiting for that movie — a big-budget feature film that offers Reconstruction itself as an American freedom struggle.

The genre’s failure to depict Reconstruction is the most telling reminder that American popular culture still has not come fully to grips with the real meaning and consequences of the Civil War. Perhaps this is so because Reconstruction is now rightly regarded within the academy as a narrative of decline rather than victory — of diminished rather than expanded freedom. To its credit, “Jones” wrestles with this. As Rachel comforts Newton amidst the experiment’s implosion, “It ain’t your fault we lost that war.” The downward trajectory of the actual historical narrative will continue to bedevil filmmakers. Filmmakers might choose to free themselves from convention and embrace narratives that end in collective defeat. The record, though, is not good, as 2004’s box-office disaster “The Alamo” attests.

The other possibility is to find ways of wringing success from the jaws of failure. It is likely for this reason, I suspect, that Ross chose to frame the story of Newton Knight around the 1948 trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight, for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws by marrying a white woman. While Davis loses his case, he scores a moral point that the audience knows will soon be vindicated by civil rights gains. In this way, the film links a story of freedom’s failure to a future of success. This is the same move that “Jane Pittman” makes, and may become a theme in any successful Reconstruction formula that emerges.

We might dare hope for even more. If the popular historical consciousness ever does become capable of telling stories of Reconstruction’s failure, it may be a healthy sign of maturation, an indication that we can come to own our disgraces as well as our glories. For no period in our past ever put our commitment to democracy to a stricter test, and none has ever witnessed a more ignominious failure. It is the very stuff of epic history. Having submitted the fate of slavery to a trial of arms, the nation could determine the fate of slavery, but not of freedom. The victorious Union struggled to define that condition in law and constitution, but lacked the political will to make it a reality on the ground. In its zeal to achieve in peace what arms could not secure it in war, the white supremacist South launched the most potent terrorist campaign in American history. It won by breaking the will of the public to support continual federal intervention. This left African Americans friendless against those who refused to grant them the most basic human dignities, alone to battle for decades against the grossest perversion of democracy the country has ever known. As Newton Knight says of the national politicians who permitted the South to return to home rule, “their war is over.” African Americans’ had just begun.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

Aiming for Accuracy: Free State of Jones, Contingency, and the Meaning of Freedom

Early in Free State of Jones a Confederate soldier proclaims he is not fighting for slavery but rather “for honor.” His comrades, including poor Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), needle him. Considering the “Twenty Negro Law,” Conscription Act, and tax-in-kind law, they point out that their blood only helps slaveholders get richer. After deserting, Knight leads poor farmers and former slaves against conscription, taxation, and re-enslavement. Against a shared enemy, the Confederacy, he brings black and white fugitives together. But when Knight and his black comrades-in-arms attempt to move from the bullet to the ballot box, white allies fade away and white supremacists rise up.

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.
At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote. Image from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Beginning at the Battle of Corinth in 1862, Free State of Jones is about a long Reconstruction. It uniquely explores African Americans’ struggle for political and economic rights in the face of white power. Here, emancipation has an asterisk. Slavery ends with the war, but freedom does not follow. After former Confederates return to power and reassert slavery’s white hierarchy, political organizer and ex-slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) captures the reality for black Americans: “We free and we ain’t free.” Unlike other films, Free State of Jones illuminates the contingency of black freedom in the South after the Civil War in the face of white supremacist violence, northern Republican abandonment, and insufficient federal troops. After the battle scenes, the Federal troops are entirely absent.

Throughout the film, class, race, and gender overlap and challenge the assumptions of viewers and characters. Women and men, black and white, resist, fight, and survive together. When a white member of Knight’s company tries to deny Moses food because he is black and a fugitive, Moses responds, “How you ain’t?” How, if both are fugitives from compulsory service to slaveholders in a cotton field or on a battlefield, are they different? Through spirituality and experience, Knight considers this equality of the oppressed to be self-evident. McConaughey’s portrayal of Knight suggests Nathaniel Bacon and John Brown: a natural leader wild-eyed for solidarity and justice in the face of economic and racial oppression. Director Gary Ross highlights the many methods of resistance employed by fugitive slaves and enslaved people: fleeing to the wilderness, like Moses; remaining on plantations but assisting runaways, like Rachel (Gugu-Mbatha-Raw); remembering, like Moses’ wife (Kesha Bullard Lewis) and son Isaiah (LaJessie Smith). White characters resist Confederate authority similarly, but Ross also delineates the differences in experience. Rachel’s and Moses’s bodies bear witness to their physical and psychological torture, scars that mark the limits of white abilities to fathom black experiences.

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Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Free State of Jones. Image from IMDb.

Committed to historical authenticity, Ross consulted historians Martha Hodes, Eric Foner, Margaret Storey, and Victoria Bynum, whose book 2001 The Free State of Jones was optioned for the screen. He also published extensive footnotes for the film that are available online, perhaps unprecedented in Hollywood. Does it suggest a trend towards fact over fiction in historical movies? Only the box office will tell.

Matthew McConaughey as in Newton Knight. Image from IMDb.

Free State of Jones stands out for exploring Reconstruction, but it is not perfect.   Few characters are developed beyond Knight. This is a missed opportunity considering the depth Mbatha-Raw and Ali bring to Rachel and Moses, respectively, and the reality that, while Knight leads, he joins a preexisting fugitive slave network. The story of the 1948 Mississippi miscegenation trial of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight is all elbows. The pacing disorients, but while this hurts the narrative it strengthens the history.   Familiar Civil War and Reconstruction benchmarks are absent, leaving audiences open to surprise when scenes or subtitles challenge assumptions. In one scene, dozens of African Americans pick cotton in a field under the supervision of white overseers when the words “One year after emancipation” appear as a subtitle. “What changed? What was freedom?” perplexed viewers may ask. An apt question, then and now. In Reconstruction, conditions changed both essentially and unnoticably, quickly and slowly, permanently and temporarily. The film unintentionally mimics this.

Free State of Jones emphasizes the inherent inequality of the Confederacy, the violence of white supremacists, and the broken promises of Reconstruction at a poignant moment in our national discourse. Many will find the ending unsatisfying, abrupt, and unfinished. But maybe historicity should get in the way of a happy ending, especially when it reminds us that racial injustice today has deep roots in America’s slaveholding past. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but it bends towards justice.” By bringing one story of Reconstruction to the silver screen, maybe Free State of Jones will recruit a few more hands to reshape a more just ending to this American tale.

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Image from IMDb.

Tom Foley

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com.

Muhammad Ali’s Civil War Inheritance: A Historical Note

The death of Muhammad Ali reminded people here in America and across the world of the many ways in which his life had meaning beyond his triumphs in the boxing ring. As numerous people have recalled in recent days, Ali was more than a fierce boxer; he lived a fierce life. He fought for recognition of his dignity, integrity, intellect, and humanity and that of black people everywhere. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, insisting that as a black man, he had no fight there and for that saw his right to earn a living in his profession and to travel abroad stripped away. As the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and Reconstruction merge and collide, it is worth thinking about the legacy Ali leaves—and remembering the one he inherited. He was the great-grandson of a black Civil War soldier and the grandson of a man who challenged in his own way the racial determinations imposed on black people. His life of resistance to racial discrimination and dehumanization stands as a memoir of the generations-long struggle of black people to give meaning to the freedom won during the Civil War and the enduring legacy of that fight in the ongoing contest over what it means to be free.

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Muhammad Ali in Zaire, 1974. Photo by Howard L. Bingham. [1]
Ali’s fight against injustice—his very sense of injustice—rightfully belongs to the long history of the black freedom struggle that began in the first days of black people’s enslavement in this country. In the War for Independence, black men fought on the side of the revolutionaries and others took advantage of opportunities offered by the British to flee slavery and secure their freedom. They fought again in the War of 1812 and then, on their own, in revolts and every day resistance. When the nation split in 1861 over slavery, they took this struggle to the Union side. Over 180,000 black men served as soldiers in the United States Army and Navy during the Civil War, and hundreds of thousands more enslaved men, women, and children put their lives on the line to resist slavery and defeat slaveholders’ attempt to establish an unabashedly proud pro-slavery nation.

The Civil War generation of African Americans, wherever they were, helped to defeat the Confederacy and, as President Lincoln acknowledged, black soldiers were critical to victory. Freedom for the enslaved and the “use of colored troops,” Lincoln wrote to a critic of the Emancipation Proclamation in the late summer of 1864, “constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” Without them, he had concluded, “we can not longer maintain the contest.” Military necessity had forced Lincoln to join the chorus of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who called for the enlistment of black men and argued that military service translated into a right to freedom and citizenship. “Drive back to the support of the rebellion the physical force which the colored people now give, and promise us, and neither the present, nor any coming administration, can save the Union,” Lincoln wrote. “Take from us, and give to the enemy, the hundred and thirty, forty, or fifty thousand colored persons now serving us as soldiers, seamen, and laborers, and we can not longer maintain the contest.”[2] For black men, military service in the Civil War entailed unique dangers. Those who left slavery to become soldiers faced an enemy that refused to acknowledge them as enemy combatants and a U.S War Department that discriminated against them in matters of pay and disproportionate assignments to noncombat duties. Their families were vulnerable to retaliation from slaveholders. Even so, a future of slavery meant they had to make the sacrifice. Muhammad Ali’s maternal great-grandfather, Thomas Morehead, was among those who reached this conclusion.

Muster roll descriptive information for Thomas Morehead, Ali's maternal great-grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com. [3]
Muster roll descriptive information for Thomas Morehead, Ali’s maternal great-grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com. [3]
Enslaved in Kentucky, one of the four border states whose allegiance to the Union Lincoln saw as critical to Union victory, Thomas Morehead, like many black men, left behind a wife and two children when he mustered in at Bowling Green, Kentucky in September 1864. Morehead served in the 122nd United Stated Colored Infantry (USCI) organized at Louisville in December 1864. Within two months he had been promoted to 1st Sergeant. He was with the 122nd when it was ordered to the front in Virginia where Morehead and his comrades participated in the siege operations against Petersburg and Richmond. After the Civil War, the 122nd USCI was ordered to Brazos Santiago, Texas. Morehead was one of some 10,000 black soldiers stationed in Texas in the fall of 1865. After his discharge on September 24, 1865 at Corpus Christi, Sergeant Morehead made his way back to his family in Kentucky.  In 1891, at the age of 51, Thomas Morehead married Lizzy, a woman 30 years his junior.[4] To this union was born Bertie (Birdie) Morehead, Muhammad Ali’s maternal grandmother. In adulthood, Bertie married John L. Grady, Sr. Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay, was their child. Morehead passed along more than his name. He left to his descendants a love for and a politics of freedom. The experience of soldiering in Texas taught black soldiers important lessons in what it meant to serve a country that begrudged them basic civil rights.

In changing his name, his religion, and taking a stand against the war, Skip Gates writes, Muhammad Ali “helped move black radicalism into the mainstream.”[5] In this, Ali showed something of his inheritance from Thomas Morehead and his grandfather, John L. Grady, Sr. Asserting that he was a “Natural Born Citizen,” on his World War I Draft Registration card, the Kentucky coal miner listed his race as Ethiopian.[6]

Draft registration card for John Louis Grady, Ali's maternal grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com.
Draft registration card for John Louis Grady, Ali’s maternal grandfather. Image from Ancestry.com.

 

[1] “Muhammad Ali,” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/lat-sp-5-muhammad-ali-20141228-photo.html.

[2] A. Lincoln to Hon. Charles D. Robinson, August 17, 1864, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 7, p. 501.

[3] Thomas Morehead, Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served the United States Colored Troops: 56th-138th USCT Infantry, 1864-1866, Fold3 Database from Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, (USCT 122, Box 28, RG 94, NARA). See also Soldiers and Sailors Database, https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm.

[4] It appears that he had six children with his first wife, Georgia Morehead.

[5] Henry Louis Gates, “Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet,” New York Times, June 9, 2016.

[6] John Louis [Lewis] Grady, World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Fold3 Database (RG 163, M1509, NARA).

Thavolia Glymph

Thavolia Glymph is associate professor of History and African & African American Studies at Duke University.