The National Park Service Releases its “Civil War to Civil Rights” Summary Report

During the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the National Park Service undertook an ambitious plan to commemorate and educate people about the war’s history and connect it to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “Civil War to Civil Rights” included more than 100 units of the NPS and lasted from 2011 until 2015. The NPS recently published its summary report of the commemoration and you can read it here.

My own perspective on what happened across the agency during the Sesquicentennial is fairly limited. For most of the commemoration I was away from the agency working as a teacher and going to graduate school; I only started working for the NPS during the last year of the Sesquicentennial. Nevertheless, there are a few broad takeaways I have about this report and the program as a whole:

  • I had issues with the “Civil War to Civil Rights” theme, which I previously wrote about here. Overall I thought the theme was too limiting and exclusionary in that it tended to focus on the Black freedom struggle without giving appropriate attention to other important stories about gender, immigration, indigenous rights, and the very meaning of the Union and why it was worth fighting for. To cite one example, the story of this nation’s indigenous peoples is not one of “Civil War to Civil Rights” and does not fit nicely into that interpretive box. By extension, the time period from roughly 1880 to 1950 was largely overlooked. For most visitors I suspect that they made the connection between 1860 and 1960 but never thought too much about what happened during the bulk of the time in between those years. Connecting those dots, particularly with regards to the Reconstruction Era, will be another challenge to face moving forward.
  • At the same time, I thought the Park Service did a nice job (and continues to do a nice job) of interpreting the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. I am currently reading Robert J. Cook’s publication on the Civil War Centennial commemoration from 1961-1965, which convincingly shows that the Civil War Centennial Commission tasked by the federal government to commemorate the Civil War during that era largely ignored the stories of slavery and emancipation in favor of a “consensus” interpretation that extolled the mutual valor of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We have thankfully moved beyond that interpretive model today.
  • During the Sesquicentennial I did some preliminary research on visitation to Civil War battlefields and related historic sites and found that overall attendance was up at many sites during the commemoration. The NPS final report seems to validate my findings. We don’t know what exactly each visitor took away from their experience and we still have much work to do in bringing new audiences to NPS Civil War sites, but overall I think it should be no surprise that the Sesquicentennial brought a much more diverse audience pool to these sites thanks to a more inclusive and accurate interpretation of the war and an expansive educational initiative that went beyond military tactics into the realms of economics, politics, and culture.
  • I can’t say that I saw a lot of radically dynamic programs within the agency that really broke the mold of traditional education/entertainment interpretive programs (e.g. battle reenactments, ranger-led talks, school and scout programs), but the agency did engage in a lot of thoughtful programming and updated its museum panels and technological media to reflect contemporary historical scholarship on the war.
  • This NPS report and a lot of the rhetoric within the interpretation and education wing of the agency has focused around talk of “multiple perspectives,” “moving beyond facts,” and “relevant” stories that speak to contemporary issues. In particular the ascension of facilitated dialogue as a legitimate form of educational programming was notable during the Sesquicentennial, although I think there are a lot of sites that continue to solely rely on traditional ranger-led interpretive programming. I believe these developments are good, but only to an extent. The root of any educational program must be planted on a foundation of historical scholarship and primary source evidence. It all starts with educating people about the actual history itself and the importance of studying the past today. I want to have good, meaningful dialogues with people, but if someone shares a perspective rooted in misinformation (“Thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy”; “Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War”; “Ulysses S. Grant is a terrorist”), I will call them out on it. Doing so, however, means I need to have an understanding of the evidence at hand. Having an ability to do interpretive programs like facilitated dialogue without an understanding of the history involved in the discussion is meaningless to me.
  • The overall cultural influence of the Civil War Sesquicentennial was shaped by two remarkable developments outside the agency. One is the emergence of the internet as a medium for learning, discussing, and writing about the war. For any contribution the NPS offered in enhancing the nation’s collective understanding of the war, the internet contributed in ways both good and bad on a level that far exceeded the reach of the NPS’s educational offerings. The second remarkable development was the rise of explosive contemporary events that accompanied the Sesquicentennial. The Ferguson unrest began a mere 30 minutes from where I work at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site and I imagine that it introduced a great number of people to the histories of racial violence, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement who may have not taken an interest if not for contemporary events. The shining moment for us at ULSG was most likely the effort to bring every eighth grader from the Ferguson-Florissant School District to the site to discuss these topics in early 2015, which I thought was pretty successful. Likewise, the Charleston shooting ignited a firestorm over the appropriate displaying of the Confederate flag in today’s society. Visitors were not hesitant to share their thoughts with me on that topic, which in turn led to (mostly) good conversations about the meaning of the flag and the origins of the Confederacy. Ultimately I believe the NPS’s Sesquicentennial events were successful, but were in many ways overshadowed by what was going on in the larger world.

We’ve still got a lot of work to do – let’s keep it up.



4 thoughts on “The National Park Service Releases its “Civil War to Civil Rights” Summary Report

  1. Nick, this is a thoughtful reflection on the “Civil War to Civil Rights” initiative. NPS and the country has come a long way since the centennial observations in the 1960s, but as you point out, more could be done. As an educator, I am curious about your resolve when confronted by historical ignorance to “call them out.” I always struggle with turning these confrontations into moments of learning. Especially with our current period of willful ignorance in pursuit of popularity (and political office), how do we stay engaged and help people move beyond their ignorance, fear, and hatred? I agree that we must be rigorously accountable to the historical evidence; in fact as a historian I am professionally committed to this foundation of intellectual integrity. But as a teacher, my first commitment is to learning, and merely confronting people with confounding facts too often halts all dialogue and wastes the learning opportunity. So how do you go about calling them out in a way that leads to productive conversation and new insights? ♨

    1. Hi Thomas,

      “Call them out” is too harsh of language on my part and I don’t advocate that approach. I think there are several different approaches based on the circustances of the particular interaction. One method is to ask questions in response: How did you come to that conclusion? Where did you hear that interpretation? What sources have you consulted to make that conclusion? Challenge people to defend their positions and then encourage them to consider an alternative viewpoint by saying something like “there are many viewpoints when it comes to this topic and you might consider reading…”

      Conversely, there are times when you simply have to tell someone that they’re mistaken or incorrect. One time a visitor argued to me that Lincoln owned slaves and I simply to explain that that info was wrong – he lived in free states his entire adult life (minus DC) and consistently expressed a deep aversion to slavery. And that’s that.

      What’s also important is that we should never label people when we talk with them. For example, I’d never accuse someone of being a neo-Confederate, but I might tell them that what they’re arguing sounds like something many Confederate apologists say. Challenge what people say and do rather than making claims about who they are.

      Hope this helps and have a great Thanksgiving!

  2. The movie “Lincoln” turned out to be the single most popular manifestation of interest in the Civil War and it focused primarily on slavery. I had some of my readers tell me that the movie wasn’t a Civil War movie at all!

    The Confederate Battle Flag emerged as an issue at the very end of the Sesqui, and its retreat in 2015 and reemergance in the waning days of the presidential campaign were hardly expected in 2011.

    I was able to attend a few events for the 150th and they were well done. I did hear a well-known academic at one 150th event at an NPS site decry “Political Correctness.” For everyone who isn’t white that comes across as an expression of exclusion of blacks, Latinos, and other minorities.

    I glanced at the linked report from the NPS. It seemed very celebretory, but I will have to read it before I can tell if the text matches the pull-quotes. In looking at park attendance, I wonder if there really was much of an uptick in visitation during the four year commemoration.

    I read Cook’s Troubled Commemoration at the start of the Sesqui. The 150th was a big step forward compared to the Centennial. The NPS told a lot more stories of African Americans without losing its military history audience, which is important. New guides to Latinos and Asians in the Civil War were welcome.

    I don’t think that it was possible that the Sesqui could make as big an impact on the general public’s consciousness as the Centennial. Think of the other anniversaries we have had in recent years (War of 1812 anyone? World War I) and you understand that the norm is for the public to ignore anniversaries. The lack of a Civil War Sesqui Commission and strong Congressional committment to the commemoration hurt. We saw that when the president was involved, for example for the Cushing Medal of Honor, there was a lot of publicity. I think that President Obama’s unpopularity among the core demographic of the Civil War community made it tough to involve him the commemorative effort.

    Sadly, even the 13th Amendment 150th went largely unmarked by the public. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s tying of the Civil War to the 14th Amendment and same-sex marriage in her Gettysburg Address drew derision from many in the Civil War crowd. I wonder if there will be much of a commemoration by the NPS of this most important Amendment under the new administration.

    1. Great comment, Pat. Thanks.

      The film Lincoln was undoubtedly influential, as was other related films like 12 Years and Slave and Django Unchained (I know it’s not at all accurate but it leaves an impression).

      I agree fully that the norm is for most people to ignore historical anniversaries. The Centennial, for all its faults, was successful in arousing increased interest in the war. I think the Sesquicentennial was largely successful as well despite the challenges that were faced during the period.

      That Doris Kearns Goodwin speech was rather odd, although I think 14th amendment should definitely be connected to the war itself. I hope we can commemorate the three Civil Rights amendments of Reconstruction but I don’t think any effort would garner nearly as much attention as the CW150. Nevertheless I hope we in the NPS can do something about that and raise awareness of Reconstruction history!

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