African-American history has played an integral role in the shaping of politics, economics, and culture in the United States. Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? Were you in a classroom? Reading a book? Talking with relatives or friends? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed and/or developed over time? What do you think is the most effective way to pass along this rich and growing history to future generations?

Robert Terry

What follows is a summery of the work I’m engaged in which I’m soliciting your opinion on, thanks in advance.

The Foreword of Claude F. Oubre’s book Forty Acres and A Mule written in July 0f 2011 by Katherine C. Mooney begins with:
“It has become a truism in recent years to note that no period of American history has experienced a more dramatic reinterpretation over the past century that Reconstruction. Looking back from today’s studies of Reconstruction-which emphasize it as a time of change in ideas about citizenship, labor, governmental authority, and a myriad of other deeply significant questions- it seems almost impossible to imagine that, not so very long ago, such studies were not only thought-of but unthinkable.”
The Preface of Eric Foner’s book A Short History of Reconstruction (1990) begins with:
“Revising interpretations of the past is intrinsic to the study of history. But no period of the American experience has, in the last twenty-five years seen a broadly accepted point of view so completely overturned as Reconstruction—the dramatic, controversial era that followed the Civil War. Since the early 1960’s, a profound alteration of the place of blacks within American society, newly uncovered evidence, and changing definitions of history itself have combined to transform our understanding of Reconstruction.”
Oubre’s Foreword and Foner’s Preface then go on to state that the first scholarly studies of Reconstruction were made in the early 20th Century by William Dunning and his Columbia students all depict Reconstruction as a dark and terrible period in American history wherein unscrupulous “carpetbaggers” from the North, unprincipled Southern white “scalawags,” and ignorant blacks unprepared for freedoms given to them hampered the recovery process in the South. One of the only dissenting voices to these studies was made by the black scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, who, in the book Black Reconstruction (1935), ended with a strong criticism of his contemporaries when he wrote;
“One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction; they cannot conceive of Negroes as men.”

It wasn’t until the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement that reason and opportunity paved the way for many scholars to take another look at Reconstruction. After reconsidering evidence and giving new credibility to views of men like Du Bois the complete turnaround of history came about. In the 21st these revisions to the Reconstruction Era continue impact America’s past and shaping its future. Changes that are now widely accepted include the fact that civil rights didn’t go as far as they should have during the Reconstruction, that President Johnson was not a defender of the constitution but rather a partisan who overextended the powers of the executive branch, and that Radical Republicans were not the fanatic disrupters of a much wanted peace after the hostilities ended but rather enlightened statesmen who wanted to prevent the antebellum south from being reconstructed.
One area of history which the turnaround started in the 1960’s has yet to reconsider are military records of officers assigned to the Freedmen Bureau during the early days of the Reconstruction. Many of these officers aided former slaves in their efforts to hold onto lands that they were given possessory title to during the war. One such officer, Captain John Darling Terry, was demoted on charges of missing a leg lost during the war, while he served as General Rufus Saxton’s Adjutant at the Freedmen Bureau in SC. During the war General Sherman gave General Saxton orders to distribute 40-acres tracts of land to the families of former slaves. By June of 1865 some 40,000 had been distributed. At that time, General Saxton who was now acted as Sub Commissioner of the Freedmen Bureau in the States of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, delayed taking the lands back when the Amnesty Proclamation issued by President Johnson forced just about all of the 40-acres plots in the southern states to be returned to former owners. In the end the delaying tactic would preserve some ten percent of the lands for the families of former slaves but nothing would ever be done for the losses suffered by the officers who had their careers destroyed when President Johnson orchestrated actions taken against their defiance to his policies.
Much of what gets written still states that officers like General Saxton did more harm than good for the newly liberated slaves even though its unquestionable that they sacrificed their careers to aid a newly freed people to hold onto a concrete piece of freedom. In John Darling Terry’s case, it took until 2013 for the U. S. Army to approve an application to return his permanent rank as a Captain. It took nearly a century and a half to do what John Darling Terry was unable to during the remaining fifty years he tried but was unable to in his life. He preserved in everything he did both on the battlefield and in civilian life. On his citation for the Medal of Honor it states that he encouraged others to continue fighting until carried off the field. It’s from those words engraved on the bronze plague above his resting place that his call for justice can still be heard. It’s about the honor that was unjustly taken from him and those he served with at the Freedmen Bureau that needs restored.