Reconstruction Reconsidered

Today we observe and celebrate Juneteenth National Independence Day which is the official name of the federal holiday that was formally adopted last year. The name Juneteenth is a combination of June and 19th which is the date of the proclamation issued by U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger upon his arrival in Galveston, Texas, to take command of the U.S. Army troops sent there to enforce  emancipation.

On that date a year later, Black people in Texas celebrated the anniversary which became an annual thing in Texas and gradually spread to the rest of the country.

There are several Juneteenth-related events in Lowell today:

  • 11am to 5pm on Market Street, Free Soil Arts Collective holds its second annual Juneteenth Celebration to highlight Black musicians and performers.
  • Noon to 1:30pm there will be a Lowell Walk on Lowell’s Black History. The walk is hosted by Lowell National Historic Park and will begin at the Visitor Center at 246 Market Street.
  • 2pm to 6pm at Muldoon Park at 5 Billerica Street, the Black Lowell Coalition will hold a Juneteenth Celebration.
  • 5pm to 10pm at the UTEC Green at the corner of Hurd and Warren streets, the Afro-American Community Collaborative will hold its third annual Juneteenth & Father’s Day Block Party.

I plan to attend the Lowell Walk and will write about that tomorrow (which is the official observance day of the holiday since Juneteenth falls on Sunday this year). Today, I’ll share a few thoughts on Reconstruction.

Besides enforcing emancipation, the troops in Texas commanded by General Granger were there to oversee Reconstruction which described the bundle of laws enacted to give the rights of citizenship to Black people newly freed from slavery, to punish those who revolted against the United States, and to create a pathway back into the Union for the states that had seceded. Reconstruction lasted from the end of the Civil War in 1865 until 1877 when, in a deal to resolve the disputed Presidential election of 1876, the Republican agreed that if the Democrats would allow Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes to be President, he would withdraw all U.S. troops from the southern states where they were upholding the rights of Black people in the face of fierce opposition by whites. Hayes became President and Reconstruction ended.

History has always been my favorite subject so I remember pretty well the lessons I learned while in grammar and high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The history textbooks described Reconstruction as well-intentioned but ill-conceived. The lesson was that the newly freed slaves were unready to hold elective office and were exploited by unscrupulous northerners. It was only after Reconstruction had ended in 1877 that the country was able to “heal” and move on.

Looking back on all this, I’m stunned by it because this “interpretation” is utterly wrong and reflects a revision of the Reconstruction story. Historians today maintain that the Black-led governments of the post-Civil War southern states functioned ably until they were violently overthrown by white racists.

Just as we should reconsider our understanding of Reconstruction, we should also reassess the legacy of some of the advocates of Reconstruction whose stature, I believe, was unjustly tainted by pro-southern historians. I’m thinking specifically of Ulysses S. Grant who as President, forcefully employed U.S. troops in the American south to protect and uphold the rights of Blacks. And our own Ben Butler’s legacy should be revisited. From his 1861 decision to characterize escaped slaves as contraband of war to his leadership of the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, Butler was a central character in the race revolution that occurred during and after the Civil War. I suspect it was because of those accomplishments that he has been so disparaged by historians. Now Butler was a terrible combat commander so some of the criticism of him is justified, but that is only part of the picture.

For nearly 150 years, both Grant and Butler have been disparaged by historians and in the popular culture. Like so much else about our understanding of the Civil War and its aftermath, that portrayal is beginning to change for Grant, at least. As historians revisit Butler’s accomplishments, his legacy will also benefit.