UC Davis historian Gregory Downs has added another medium to his multifaceted campaign to correct the record on Reconstruction — consulting on and appearing in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s new documentary series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.
Downs described Gates’ four-hour documentary, which premiered in April on Public Broadcasting Service, as a “major step forward” in educating the public about the period following the Civil War.
“It has a depth and richness that no other documentary has achieved,” Downs said, “and presents a fuller picture of the period than most people have ever seen, including both the violence and disappointments of Reconstructions and its remarkable gains.”
Era of hope and defeats
Reconstruction, running from the Civil War through the late 1800s, was a transformative period in American democracy, what Downs says was “a forgotten second founding of the nation.”
However, he said the era later became obscured by myths and a concerted propaganda campaign waged by Southern white Democrats with the support of Northern universities and institutions.
Downs, a professor in the Department of History in the College of Letters and Science, has written books, articles and an interactive website on Reconstruction, co-authored a National Park Service theme study, and helped establish the first national monument to the widely misunderstood era. He has a new book coming out this fall: The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle Over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic.
“It isn’t possible to see U.S. history clearly without understanding Reconstruction, but there are real impediments to the way Americans approach their history. Reconstruction is bloody and disappointing and so confuses people who want to see U.S. history as an unending wave of progress,” Downs said. “On the other hand, Reconstruction does demonstrate the possibility of a biracial grassroots democracy, and so reminds us that U.S. history is also not an unrelenting series of defeats.”
'Undoing the public amnesia'
Downs’ involvement with the documentary began in March 2017. He consulted with the producers on what information and historical figures to cover, and what questions to ask in interviews. As filming got under way, he discussed with them their plans for each episode and reviewed scripts for accuracy and clarity.
It's not the first time that Downs has collaborated on a Gates production. “I have also done some sporadic consulting for Gates for his other TV programs, helping his producers unravel mysteries that come in his work with people’s genealogical histories, especially when they come across Reconstruction state militia records or things of that type.” Gates has also invited Downs to give a three-part series of the prestigious Nathan I. Huggins Lectures at Harvard University on topics related to African American history. (The dates of Downs’ lectures have not been determined yet.)
“Time will tell how much of an impact [this documentary] has on public memory and in undoing the public amnesia about Reconstruction,” Downs said. “The time is right; there’s an audience interested in Reconstruction. And the documentary is right; it’s well done. But we will have to see how much people incorporate it into their understanding of the period and of U.S. history.”
— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science