This has been reflected in a new website, www.afterslavery.com, based at Queen’s University Belfast, which is designed to explore the history of race, labor and politics in the post-emancipation Carolinas.
Leading the project is Dr. Brian Kelly, originally from Boston but now living in West Belfast, who says he hopes the site will be a way to change misconceptions about the Reconstruction era in America, a time when the country’s society was rebuilt after its civil war.
“That whole period used to be thought of as this great tragedy in which ex-slaves had been promoted to power, proved unfit to rule, and the structures went down,” he said. “But the way we look at it now is that these were probably the most democratic governments that ever existed in the southern United States.”
One example: “They were the only governments that ever gave African-Americans representation close to their actual numbers and the only ones in which working people had a real say,” Kelly continued. “The project began as a discussion between myself and other historians working on the aftermath of slave emancipation. We decided to try and launch a project that would pull together these three themes: race, labour and politics after the Civil War.”
Kelly believes that the period is one of the most important in the entire history of America.
“It is probably among the most vibrant fields for U.S. historians right now,” he said. “Until the triumph of the civil rights movement, most scholars who wrote about slavery either downplayed its importance or justified it. But that has changed dramatically, and if anyone wants to understand how racial divisions outlived the end of slavery in the U.S., you really have to understand Reconstruction.
“One prominent historian has called it America’s great missed opportunity, and I would see it in those terms. There was a possibility for about a decade after the end of the Civil War to build a society in which race didn’t matter. But those efforts were overwhelmed, partly by the indifference of the federal government, but mostly by paramilitary violence – the Ku Klux Klan is though of today as a marginal relic, but at one point it had a membership in the hundreds of thousands. So for me, it is the critical period for understanding race in the U.S.”
Kelly admits that the size of the task is a mammoth one.
“We are trying to do something very difficult – we don’t want to dumb down the site and therefore we have to make it credible for academics to use for teaching in the classroom,” he said.
“But we also want it to be used by high school students in the U.S. who are interested in their past, trade unionists who wants to know what workers were doing during all this, or people involved in community activism.
“The material makes that possible – among the documents on the site are dozens of letters and petitions written by barely literate ex-slaves. It’s incredibly moving stuff,” he continued. “We are trying to bring these new gains in research to a broad and diverse public audience and that is a big challenge.”
A section of the site deals with the way historians have changed their views on this part of history.
“It isn’t unique to America, but up until very recently, many U.S. historians thought their job was to contribute to a patriotic sensibility, that it was their job to write an inspiring national story,” he said. “This meant that inconvenient truths like slavery, persistent inequality, or America’s imperial role were shoved under the carpet. Civil rights was one of the factors that changed all that, and I think in some ways, there are lessons in that for Northern Ireland.”
Brian says he has been overwhelmed by the feedback to the site, which was launched last month.
“The top historians in the field have looked at it and come back with extremely positive comments. There is nothing else like this on the web, so it fills a void,” he said. “It surprises people that the site comes out of Belfast. I think it is a great credit to Queen’s University that a project directed from here will have a major impact in classrooms in the U.S.
The site had over 1,000 hits the first week it was launched. Kelly expects that it will be used in classrooms later this year, and anticipates a great response. He hopes the site will inspire a dialogue between professional historians and the general public.
“It is not good enough for a small group of academic historians tucked away in the library to come up with new ways of looking at the past if they don’t have any impact on people’s perceptions,” he said.
“What we are trying to do is bridge the gap between recent advances in the way historians understand this part of our history and [the traditional] views of the past,” he continued. “We have a conference coming up in South Carolina in March, where we are trying to launch a discussion between the very best research historians and a broad audience of teachers and students, people in the labor movement and community organisations, and interested citizens.”