17 Jan President Declares Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County – A Big Deal
President Obama creates Beaufort-area national Reconstruction Era Monument
Creation of a national monument to the Reconstruction Era with sites in Beaufort, St. Helena Island and Port Royal, caps a 16-year effort to recognize a critical stage in America’s history, says Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.
“This is a step that needed to be taken, and the time was right,” Keyserling said. “Beaufort County is the focal point for the Reconstruction Era and this federal designation legitimizes what a lot of us have been saying for a long time.”
Thursday, Jan. 12, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a national monument to the Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County. His decision came after a standing-room crowd at St. Helena’s historic Brick Baptist Church in December strongly supported the federal parks designation.
The monument area includes Darrah Hall at Penn Center and Brick Baptist Church, both on St. Helena Island; Camp Saxton and the Emancipation Oak, both located on what’s now the Naval Hospital Beaufort in Port Royal; and a former Beaufort firehouse in downtown Beaufort that is within walking distance of several important locations, including the home of Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and congressman.
“Schools were opened to educate freed slaves and land ownership, entrepreneurship and voting rights for Black Americans were established” during Reconstruction, Keyserling said.
“Successful partnerships were harvested by yet to be publicly recognized black and white political, educational, civic and business champions who began to make this a more equitable and just society. During the period Beaufort enjoyed one of its highest levels of economic prosperity, created by freedmen and local businesses, in our more than 300-year history.
“The national recognition of Reconstruction, so often ignored or intentionally left out, can unlock this untold history, lessons, some bad and many good, that have for years kept us from fully knowing the broad array of dreams, accomplishments and failures of our past and the realization of the American dream,” he said.
A National Park Service study showed Beaufort County was the best place for a monument to the period because of the large number of nearby important sites.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn led the effort to create the Reconstruction Era monument and held a public hearing in December at St. Helena Island. “I want to thank President Obama for establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument,” he said in a statement. “For a long time, this period of history has been ignored and is often misunderstood or misrepresented.”
Beaufort Mayor Beaufort Keyserling and his brother Paul Keyserling donated the firehouse as part of the monument. The mayor said the designation, coupled with increasing awareness of Beaufort and the Lowcountry as a tourist destination, could help showcase a forgotten period in America’s history.
“Beaufort’s history is more than big homes on the river bluff, and it’s more than European colonists finding a Lowcountry home. The history of the Lowcountry is a story about people working very hard, day after day, to create a home and sustain a community,” Keyserling said.
“We sometimes forget the role that African-Americans and lower-income people played in making Beaufort a sustainable city that has survived and thrived for more than 300 years.”
While the monument includes four of the most significant sites, a group called Partners in Reconstruction History has noted more than 100 sites, each with its own story, which may be incorporated into a network. This interweaving network will serve as a laboratory so that scholars, students, residents and visitors will be able to delve more deeply into the history.
The effort to put a Reconstruction Era Monument recommendation before President Obama was spearheaded at the national level by Congressmen Clyburn (D-SC) and Mark Sanford (R-SC) and locally by Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray, Rev Abraham Murray of Brick Baptist Church and Rodell Lawrence of Penn Center.
Obama used the Antiquities Act to establish the new national monument. The act has been used by various presidents 150 times to create national monuments, said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.
“Reconstruction is a poorly-understood, poorly-interpreted piece of American history,” Jarvis told the gathering at Brick Baptist Church in December. “This (area) is the heart, the beginning, of Reconstruction.”
Keyserling said the national recognition from a special Park Service designation could bring renewed notice to a lesser-known Sea Island story – how Penn Center, the Port Royal Experiment and Robert Smalls and many unrecognized and unsung heroes all played a large role in Reconstruction, and how Reconstruction affected the future of South Carolina, the South and the entire country.
“This is a story worth knowing,” Brick Baptist Rev. Abraham Murray said. “This is a story worth sharing.”
In Beaufort County, it’s easy to find elements of the Reconstruction story. The U.S. Army occupied the area in November 1861. At that point, slaves from the Sea Islands escaped to Beaufort and Port Royal, where many of the men enlisted to fight for the Union. In June 1863, U.S. soldiers accompanied by Harriet Tubman on the Combahee Ferry raid freed hundreds of slaves in nearby plantations.
Beaufort was also the home of Robert Smalls, a Civil War hero who steered the CSS Planter to the U.S. Navy in 1862, used his reward money to purchase his former master’s house and then became a local political leader. In 1868, Smalls was a delegate in the state constitutional convention that enfranchised black men and created free public education. Smalls went on to serve five terms in Congress.
If you want to read more The Huffington Post provides insight into what this means
David Lauderdale gives insight into why telling the stories is important and helps tie together related pieces of history. As a teenager I had the benefit of attending some of Dr King’s public meetings at Penn Center. Memories never forgotten and especially remembered as we honor Dr King this week.