After the Flag

Yesterday South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the State House grounds.[1] An important step for the state, but as historian Vernon Burton pointed out in an interview with Here & Now on NPR, there are larger issues at play in South Carolina. South Carolina and the nation must begin a difficult conversation about the history of white supremacy, racialized violence, domestic terrorism and institutional racism since slavery’s eradication. A flag erected to protest desegregation in the early 1960s is not the origin of that story.

South Carolina was once the scene of the first significant experiment in Reconstruction during the Civil War and a shining example of black success in social, economic and political realms.[2] Few people know that. If we cannot talk about Reconstruction and its violent overthrow in 1876 in a meaningful way on the 150th anniversary of its inception, then we cannot truly understand the long history of social and intuitional racism that has led America to this moment where the momentum from the #BlackLivesMatter campaign collided with the act of domestic terrorism at a church active in black freedom struggles across three centuries. Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, these sites of racial conflict share similar histories. At least South Carolina experienced a period of reform following the Civil War. Missouri and Maryland were border-slave states siding with the Union and thus never experienced federally-mandated Reconstruction.[3]

The day before the Charleston events unfolded, I departed Columbia, South Carolina on a week-long research trip for my dissertation. I find myself mourning and contextualizing the tragedy through my work and even during a brief excursion to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Because my dissertation focuses on museums and sites of public history related to Reconstruction memory, I wanted to see how Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture interpreted Reconstruction history.

Not one word or object.

Slavery and the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century received treatment, but Reconstruction did not.

The table cloth the Brown Family and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund gathered around to discuss the landmark 1954 case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. Photo by author.

The table cloth the Brown Family and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund gathered around to discuss the landmark 1954 case Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. Photo by author.

I found En Vogue’s shiny, silver costumes from the group’s video “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).”

Photo by author.

Sometimes I think “we’re never gonna get it.” Sure this is fun material culture celebrating black musical achievements. And this song was my jam in the eighth grade. But if this exhibit is not talking about the origin and ultimate destruction of America’s first attempt at achieving black equality, then why would we expect South Carolinians and the nation to discuss and resolve issues of equality effectively a century and half later in the wake of the Charleston massacre?

Partial label from En Vogue display. Photo by author.

Partial label from En Vogue display. Photo by author.

I understand that the Smithsonian wants to give visitors a taste of an important museum set to open in 2016 and had limited space to do so. Thus, artifacts from black popular culture generate more excitement than a display detailing a subject misunderstood by so many Americans. However, the exhibit’s website boasts the gallery is an “overall introduction” to the forthcoming museum. I wonder what kind of museum this will be when one of the most important eras of black history is not even mentioned in this introduction. The NMAAHC’s mission is “to help all Americans remember, and by remembering . . . stimulate a dialogue about race and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.” That dialogue of reconciliation will prove difficult if Reconstruction is forgotten.

I urge folks in South Carolina trying to heal and learn from the scars left by both Walter Scott’s murder and the terrorist act at Emmanuel AME Church to come to the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia. A historic house museum of Reconstruction, the home of a teenage future president experiencing America’s first civil rights movement appears to be the only Reconstruction-focused museum in the country. It is a resource for learning about the period and contemplating the first expressions of African American political, economic and social independence following emancipation. Watch black successes in politics, business and the legal system. Then bear witness to these rights being stripped away in blood and with terror. The path from white supremacy during Reconstruction to its current state in the twenty-first century will become clearer and somehow more familiar. The devastation unleashed by Dylann Roof transforms from a shocking, isolated incident to an attack more normal than absurd. The museum encounter widens the lens with which the community can view the setbacks ushered in by Jim Crow and the limited gains of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a second Reconstruction. Reconstruction remains unfinished. But to truly bring about change, Americans must begin to think more deeply than about a removing the Confederate flag from the State House. Otherwise, we may never really get it.

[1] “Gov. Nikki Haley Calls for Removal of Confederate Flag from State House Grounds,” accessed June 22, 2015, http://www.wistv.com/story/29377947/gov-nikki-haley-calls-for-removal-of-confederate-flag-from-state-house-grounds.

[2] For a complete study on the role Beaufort played as the “dress rehearsal” for Reconstruction policy and a site of tremendous political, economic and social gains, see Willie Lee Nichols Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).

[3] Megan Garber, “The Difference Between Ferguson and #Ferguson,” The Atlantic, August 12, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/the-difference-between-ferguson-and-ferguson/375955/.

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