The LSA Bicentennial Theme Semester hosted its second symposium Friday in East Quad entitled “1877: Reconstructing the University of Michigan.” The event was a panel discussion Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War in Michigan, including how the University’s modern image was shaped by the admittance of female students.
Michelle McClellan, associate history and Residential College professor explained how Reconstruction was a time of disarray, in which the country was trying to experiment with ways to reunite the country.
“Reconstruction is really the era where we would start to recognize the world as we know it,” McClellan said. “This last quarter of the 19th century is where, if we could time travel, we would start to recognize the outlines then of what we know now.”
According to Martin Hershock, professor of history at UM-Dearborn, Michigan was considered a standard of progression in the country with the creation of the Republican Party.
“Michigan replicated that intense religious fervor and evangelical commitment to change,” he said. “Many referred to Michigan in very idealistic terms as this sort of beacon of liberty. It had a terminal port in the Underground Railroad. It was the birthplace of the Republican Party. A number of its leading politicians were committed to reform and leading abolition.”
John Quist, professor of history at Shippensburg University, described Michigan Republican voters as distrusting of former Confederate states and said resident Republicans did not wanting them to rejoin the Union.
“Most Michigan Republicans are affiliated with the party’s radical wing,” Quist said. “The Republicans were divided into moderates and radicals. Radicals were the ones who not only favored high standards for readmission of the former states of the Confederacy into the Union, restrictions on Confederates voting and holding office, but radicals also favored voting and citizen rights for African Americans.”
That year, the University also took steps toward gender equality in opting to admit women. Gayle Rubin, professor of anthropology and women’s studies, said the decision was met with intense debate, but ultimately resulted in women being admitted into the University. At this point in time, only four women in the world had doctorate degrees.
“The formal admission of female students to Michigan took place in the late 19th century after several years of acrimonious debate, interrupted by the Civil War,” Rubin said. “So, technically, the admission of women took place during Reconstruction. According to the sources I’m using, the first female student was Madelon Stockwell, for whom the dormitory I used to walk by was named.”
Yet, despite its progressive reputation, the state also had its downfalls — Hershock explained that Michigan was the site of many lynchings and had a strong base for the white-supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.
“Moreover, in spite of the wonderful and positive advancements that marked Michigan’s Reconstruction era, civil rights legacy, the state, like every other part of the nation, showed its dark underbelly in issues of race and equality,” Hershock said. “There were lynchings in Michigan, the KKK became a powerful force in Michigan in the 1920s and nearly elected a man for the mayor of the city of Detroit.”
Yet, Hershock believes the University’s response to many recent events is evidence of some of the Reconstruction-era based initiatives.
“The University’s strong defense of affirmative action in the case of Grutter vs. Bollinger and, more recently, President (Mark) Schlissel’s bold pronouncement in response to the recent executive orders, these are just a handful of examples that speak to the University’s legacy,” Hershock said.
LSA junior Emma McGlashen talked about how the issues the panel discussed are still relevant today. She mentioned that observing national history can help answer modern questions of equality and American identity.
“Our country is still embroiled in a lot of those debates — what does an ‘American’ look like and how do they behave in relation to other identities?” she said. “What does ‘equality’ look like and how do we go about reaching that goal? I think because we're still fighting those fights, it's useful to look at our national history and the political and legal precedent for those arguments on a national scale.”