The National Park Service has recently commissioned a study of possible sites for the commemoration of Reconstruction. This is a wonderful idea, and long overdue. But remembrance of this pivotal era should not depend entirely on the federal government. Many historic houses focus interpretation on the period after the Civil War. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home in Columbia, South Carolina, which reopened in February 2014 after extensive rehabilitation, offers a model for adapting a frumpy genre to tackle the most challenging topic in public history.
Woodrow Wilson’s family home enjoys some special advantages in this transformation. The house is located in the capital of a state that was at the center of the postwar struggle for biracial democracy. Joseph and Jessie Wilson moved to Columbia with their four children in 1870 and left with their two sons in 1874, a period of residence that overlapped with Republican ascendancy in the South. After Congress required former Confederate states to adopt constitutions that provided for black suffrage, African Americans won a majority of seats in the South Carolina legislature and on Columbia’s city council. The teenaged Woodrow Wilson, nicknamed “Tommy,” witnessed political revolution and bitter resistance. Reconstruction became vital to Wilson’s adult career. He wrote extensively on the subject as a professor, and he addressed issues related to Reconstruction as a politician, such as the segregation of federal offices in Washington. Perhaps most notoriously, he screened D.W. Griffith’s racist epic of intersectional reconciliation, Birth of a Nation (1915), in the White House.
The Woodrow Wilson Family Home approaches Reconstruction from a variety of angles available to many historic houses, especially in the South. It looks, for example, at post-emancipation domestic service, illuminating not only wages and working conditions but also the creativity of the postwar kitchen. Laborers’ reluctance to live at the workplace and their readiness to change jobs for higher pay illustrates their increased autonomy. Black entrepreneurs dramatically expanded the variety of seafood available in markets, and transportation improvements revolutionized the truck farming of vegetables as well as the distribution of meats from New York. The popular topics of changing tastes and food availability thus led into the classic Reconstruction topics of race relations and railroad construction. In Columbia the food-supply network also proved important to local politics. Grocers held more seats on the city council than representatives of any other profession, including lawyers, and the construction of a market was a leading priority of the Republican administration.
Because Joseph Wilson came to town to join his brother-in-law James Woodrow on the faculty of the Columbia Theological Seminary, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home emphasizes religion. This, too, fits the Reconstruction story, for religion was an aspect of Reconstruction with lasting impact across the country. The growth of black churches and the continuing divisions between northern and southern Protestant evangelical churches that originated in prewar controversies over slavery brought religious dimensions to racial and sectional identity. Congregations everywhere witnessed debates over Darwinism. Those arguments flourished in Columbia, where First Baptist Church pastor William C. Lindsay launched an effort to reconcile religion and science in the 1870s. As in other churches across the country, his denomination would gradually suppress such open debate.
Reconstruction also produced profound changes in education, some of which Columbia illustrated dramatically. The state constitution of 1868 created a public school system for South Carolina that soon incorporated the Howard School built by the Freedmen’s Bureau. Local leaders identified young African Americans with potential to achieve positions of national leadership. James Webster Smith, the first black cadet at West Point, started his education at the Howard School; Alonzo McClennan, the second black midshipman at Annapolis, started at the Benedict Institute established in Columbia by the American Baptist Home Missionary Society in 1870. The postwar rise of universities across the nation led to reorganization of the antebellum South Carolina College as the University of South Carolina, which became a national leader in the racial integration of higher education until Democrats closed it after the overthrow of Reconstruction.
Popular culture in young Wilson’s community offers a stimulating view of postwar ideological currents. Expanding rail and entrepreneurial networks introduced Columbia to the controversial gender stances of feminist lecturer Anna Dickinson, burlesque star Mabel Saintley, and Marie Delacour’s troupe of can-can dancers from the Folies Bergère in Paris. A middle-sized market with a population of slightly less than ten thousand in 1870, Columbia was not unusual in its participation in this circuit. Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s recent prizewinning adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), which the Columbia Dramatic Company produced in April 1874, suggests the continued resonance of nineteenth-century entertainment.
Often conceived as sheltered retreats into a domesticated past, historic house museums offer innovative vantage points for looking out at the contested local landscapes of Reconstruction. In Columbia, where Camille Drie’s bird’s-eye map of 1872 facilitates this survey, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home sits amidst government buildings, railroad lines, markets, churches, schools, theaters, fairgrounds, and residences where black and white citizens explored the meanings of freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War. Many of these sites endure, as do many of the challenges of Reconstruction. While it is high time for the National Park Service to dedicate sites specifically to Reconstruction, there are ways for us to begin talking about it at sites that already exist. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home, opened in February 2014, is a pioneer.