Historians Greg Downs and Kate Masur believe that Beaufort, South Carolina should be declared a National monument by President Obama. The two have taken the lead over the past year in pushing to set aside a historic site for the sole purpose of interpreting the Reconstruction Era. Though Reconstruction is interpreted at any number of historic sites, the nation still does not have a place devoted specifically to this crucial and widely misunderstood period in American history.
Yesterday in The Washington Post both Downs and Masur explained their choice and singled out the many places in Beaufort, where serious reflection and interpretation can take place:
- On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital in neighboring Port Royal, where on Jan. 1, 1863, Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton read the Emancipation Proclamation and former slave and future legislator Prince Rivers urged the crowd of ex-slaves to make a new nation.
- At the Penn School on nearby Saint Helena Island, where Northern missionaries and African American teachers established schools for freedpeople, and where the site now called Penn Center would become an educational and community hub for a century and a half, including years as a base for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
- In the markers for the Mitchelville settlement on nearby Hilton Head Island, where freedpeople established a self-governing community in 1862.
- In the historic home in Beaufort where Robert Smalls lived.
- In churches such as Brick Baptist on Saint Helena Island and Tabernacle Baptist in Beaufort, where ex-slaves formed their own still-thriving congregations.
- In the Arsenal, the site of drilling and weapon storage for Confederate militias, Republican Reconstruction governments and the Democrats who overthrew them.
- In the Beaufort National Cemetery, where more than 14,000 soldiers were buried, including members of two African American regiments.
I have always believed that Beaufort offers the most opportunity for many of the reasons cited by Downs and Masur. There are certainly other sites worthy of consideration, but it looks like Beaufort has the most support on both the national and local levels.
Designation as a National monument is the fastest route to making this a reality, but time is running out if this is going to happen before the end of the current administration.