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Tuesday 19 February 2019
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Beaufort’s Roots in Reconstruction

The Reconstruction Era National Monument
story by Carol Lauvray     photos by Susan DeLoach
President Barack Obama issued a proclamation on January 12, 2017 establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina. The monument is a unit of the National Park Service consisting of historic sites from the Reconstruction Era—Penn Center’s Darrah Hall and Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island and the Camp Saxton site in Port Royal—along with the Old Beaufort Firehouse in the Beaufort National Historic Landmark District in downtown Beaufort.
If you’ve passed the old firehouse on Craven Street, you may have noticed it’s now the Reconstruction Era National Monument visitor center, which has been closed much of the time. That will change beginning in January when Scott Teodorski, the NPS’ newly appointed permanent superintendent of the national monument, opens the visitor center on a more regular basis to tell the story of how the Reconstruction Era started right here in Beaufort!
The Reconstruction Era National Monument—Decades In The Making
Reconstruction is a story that began nearly 160 years ago in the Sea Islands of the Lowcountry in the early months of the Civil War. The story of the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort has unfolded over the past two decades, with the support of hundreds of people within this community and nationally.
“The National Park Service’s involvement in creating the Reconstruction Era National Monument goes back to 2000, when former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt recognized that Reconstruction was a large part of this country’s history that was not being told by the Park Service,” Superintendent Teodorski says. “There’s not a better place than Beaufort to use as a platform to tell the story of Reconstruction.”
Upon the President’s January 2017 proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, U.S. Representative James E. Clyburn released a statement reinforcing why Beaufort was chosen for the monument:
… Reconstruction had some of its earliest and most significant impact in Beaufort County, South Carolina. For the last two decades, many communities in Beaufort County have worked to recognize and preserve their Reconstruction heritage and to create a unit of the National Park Service linking these historic sites together. Today’s announcement is a great tribute to their years of work and sacrifice on this endeavor.
Penn Center, originally called Penn School, was established in 1862 as the first school in the South for former slaves.
The Board of Trustees has donated Darrah Hall, the oldest building on Penn Center’s campus, to the National Park Service to be used as an interpretive center. I extend my thanks to Chairman Clifford Bush, Executive Director Rodell Lawrence, and the entire Board of Trustees and staff for their contributions to this important cause.
Brick Baptist Church, adjacent to Penn Center, was built in 1855 by slaves.
Before Penn School expanded to its current location, early classes were held in the Brick Baptist Church building, which still stands today. Under the leadership of Rev. Abraham Murray, the church is now part of the national monument, and the congregation donated a historic preservation easement to the National Park Service to ensure this structure will be preserved in perpetuity.
Downtown Beaufort features many historic sites from the era, and the national monument will include the old firehouse building to be used as a visitor center for the many significant Reconstruction Era sites in the area. I want to thank Mayor Billy Keyserling for his family’s donation of the building and for all of his advocacy and efforts to galvanize community support for this designation.
The monument also features the Camp Saxton Site in Port Royal where on January 1, 1863, Union General Rufus Saxton assembled 3,000 slaves from the surrounding Sea Islands to read the Emancipation Proclamation, the first such reading in the South. On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital Beaufort, this site will be opened up to the public once an agreement between the Navy and the National Park Service is finalized …
In his statement, Rep. Clyburn also thanked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, and the staffs of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, as well as former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the Conservation Lands Foundation, for their support of the Reconstruction Era National Monument.
Community Support For The Reconstruction Era National Monument
During a public meeting held at Brick Church in December 2016, Rep. Clyburn and National Park Service Director Jarvis witnessed unanimous community support for the proposed monument from an overflowing crowd.
Scott Teodorski says, “A big part of what brought me to Beaufort to act as superintendent of the monument is this community. Everyone here is so excited about and supportive of the Reconstruction Era National Monument,” he emphasized. “Mayor Billy Keyserling was on the cutting edge of the efforts to create the monument here and it’s been a community-driven effort from the beginning. The monument is in Beaufort as a result of bi-partisan Congressional support and the amazing efforts of local officials, the Park Service’s community partners, and the Beaufort community.”
Community partners who are making the Reconstruction Era National Monument possible include: Penn Center; Rev. Abraham Murray and the congregation of Brick Church; Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray and the U.S. Naval Hospital Beaufort; and Mayor Billy Keyserling and Paul Keyserling, who donated the Old Beaufort Firehouse for the monument.
Penn Center board chair and acting interim director Marion Burns says Darrah Hall, built in the late 1800s, is the oldest existing building on the Penn Center campus. Superintendent Teodorski emphasized that Penn Center’s donation of Darrah Hall is a “game changer.” Traditionally used as a community center, it will be used by the Park Service as an information and education center for the monument and continue to be available for special events.
Teodorski calls Brick Baptist Church “ground zero” for Reconstruction saying, “It was built by hand by slaves and some of the early classes for freedmen were taught in the church.” The congregation has donated a facade easement, allowing the Park Service to maintain the church’s exterior as well as its grounds, which Rev. Murray says include separate cemeteries for slaves and their white masters.
The Camp Saxton site on the grounds of the Naval Hospital in Port Royal is not currently open to the public, however, Teodorski says the Park Service is working with the Navy and town to make the site accessible, so visitors can stand where Union troops came ashore at the camp. Mayor Sam Murray shared plans to move the historic Porters Chapel to the Naval Heritage Park to serve as an interpretive center for the monument.
Teodorski also praised Beaufort History Museum, located in the historic Arsenal, for its partnership with the Park Service and its long-term loan of BHM’s Reconstruction Beaufort exhibit, now on display in the NPS visitor center.
Reconstruction Began In Beaufort
President Obama’s Proclamation making Beaufort County the Reconstruction Era National Monument provides insight into why Reconstruction began in Beaufort:
The Reconstruction Era, a period spanning the early Civil War years until the start of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s, was a time of significant transformation in the United States, as the Nation grappled with the challenge of integrating millions of newly freed African Americans into its social, political, and economic life. It was in many ways the Nation’s Second Founding, as Americans abolished slavery and struggled earnestly, if not always successfully, to build a nation of free and equal citizens. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments that abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and gave all males the ability to vote by prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Ultimately, the unmet promises of Reconstruction led to the modern civil rights movement a century later.
The Reconstruction Era began when the first United States soldiers arrived in slaveholding territories, and enslaved people on plantations and farms and in cities escaped from their owners and sought refuge with Union forces or in free states. This happened in November 1861 in the Sea Islands or “Lowcountry” of southeastern South Carolina, and Beaufort County in particular.
Beaufort County became one of the first places in the United States where formerly enslaved people could begin integrating themselves into free society. While the Civil War raged in the background, Beaufort County became the birthplace of Reconstruction … [and] a novel social experiment, known as the Port Royal Experiment, to help former slaves become self-sufficient.
In and around Beaufort County during Reconstruction, the first African Americans enlisted as soldiers, the first African American schools were founded, early efforts to distribute land to former slaves took place, and many of the Reconstruction Era’s most significant African American politicians, including Robert Smalls, came to prominence. African American political influence and land ownership endured there long after setbacks in other regions. In short, events and people from Beaufort County illustrate the most important challenges of Reconstruction—crucial questions related to land, labor, education, and politics after the destruction of slavery—and some early hopeful efforts to address them. The significant historical events that transpired in Beaufort County make it an ideal place to tell stories of experimentation, potential transformation, hope, accomplishment, and disappointment. In Beaufort County, including St. Helena Island, the town of Port Royal, and the city of Beaufort, many existing historic objects demonstrate the transformative effect of emancipation and Reconstruction.
The Future of the Reconstruction Era National Monument
“How to Remember Reconstruction,” an article written by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, authors of the National Historical Landmark Theme Study and Fact Book on Reconstruction, was published in November in The New York Times. In their article, Drs. Downs and Masur called on Congress to pass the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act. They say the act “would empower the National Park Service to connect Reconstruction sites all around the country; encourage visitors to talk about Reconstruction at local historical sites; and help convey the full story of how America was remade after the Civil War.”
Mayor Keyserling says the legislation, introduced by Rep. James Clyburn and co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, would: 1) change the name of the monument to the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park; 2) expand the park’s boundaries to encompass the entire downtown Beaufort Historic National Landmark District (including sites like Tabernacle Baptist Church where Robert Smalls is buried and Smalls’ house on Prince Street) and include all of St. Helena Island; and 3) authorize the NPS to launch a national network of Reconstruction Era sites overseen from the national park in Beaufort County.
Scott Teodorski thinks the future of the Reconstruction Era National Monument is bright, with Beaufort’s unrivaled Reconstruction Era sites and history, and the enthusiastic support of this community. “I’m excited about hiring park rangers and staff. My first priority is to open the sites so visitors can experience first-hand the stories of the Reconstruction Era!”