Speaking Reconstruction: Moving Beyond the Silence

susan odonovan-lecture

Dr. Susan O’Donovan

By Steven Tramel Gaines

“It was a deliberate act of concealment.”

Dr. Susan O’Donovan of the Department of History said those words about “the silence that continues to surround Reconstruction and which dampens public understanding of what was arguably one of the most foundational periods in national history.”

O’Donovan delivered a lecture, as part of the Memphis Massacre project on Friday, February 19, 2016  in Mitchell Hall’s auditorium. The title of the lecture was “Memories of a Massacre: Reconstruction’s Untold Stories.”

The 1866 Memphis Massacre was “a blood bath” in which “at least 46 people died” and many others were wounded, raped, and robbed of property and dignity. O’Donovan called the tragedy a massacre instead of a riot to indicate the unidirectional brutality.

That May, scarcely a year after the Civil War ended, mobs of former Confederates horrifically attacked African American Memphians for three days. The primary targets included “federal symbols of authority,” former soldiers, many of whom still wore their uniforms. The attackers targeted not only individuals but also schools and churches, striking the African American community.

The victims, however, found strength to testify of their experiences. A specially appointed delegation delivered close to 1,000 pages of testimonies to Congress, nearly 400 pages of which are available at the Library of Congress. Those stories served as a mechanism that helped to move the nation from Presidential to Radical Reconstruction.

In the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, Congress passed important amendments to the Constitution: the fourteenth (due process) in June 1866 and the fifteenth (right to vote regardless of skin color) in 1868.

O’Donovan pointed out that, because of the central role played by former slaves in this process of radicalizing Reconstruction, it was an era when “black truths mattered.” The words uttered by the women and men who testified before the congressional committee in Memphis made a difference. “They were heard, not only by a city, but by a nation.” In that observation O’Donovan tied together Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and current race struggles.

Students, staff, faculty, and other interested individuals attended the lecture for various reasons. Melissa Jeeter, a senior anthropology major, attended to learn about the Memphis Massacre for a research paper. Christian Kirk, a university staff member, attended because she wanted to “fill in the gaps” in her own history. When asked if the event met her expectations, she responded, “Yes and yes and yes!”

Timothy Good of the National Park Service attended as part of an ongoing effort to determine ways to commemorate Reconstruction and to investigate related historical sites. He was “really impressed with the leadership of the University of Memphis, especially the Department of History.” He said, “Many of the issues we experience today you can understand better if you understand these events in the past, especially the Memphis Massacre.”

Catholic missionary Claire Hendee attended because she was “shocked by the silence about the Memphis Massacre and my own ignorance.” She continued, “The big reason I’m here is the dignity of the human being. Every human is created in the image of God and therefore has dignity. To perpetuate racism is to reject human dignity.”

One of the central goals of the Memphis Massacre project is to begin restoring that sense of human dignity by launching a more enduring conversation about Reconstruction, one that places African Americans at the center and that commemorates the women and men who suffered, died, and testified in Memphis in 1866.

For more information on the Project, go to the website here

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