By now most of you know that just a few days ago President Obama designated Beaufort, South Carolina as the Reconstruction Era National Monument. A community of historians and politicians have worked hard to push the president to make this decision and I could not be more pleased that he has done so as one of the final acts of his presidency.
Here is the official statement from the Department of the Interior:
The Reconstruction Era began during the Civil War and lasted until the dawn of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s. It remains one of the most complicated and poorly understood periods in American History. During Reconstruction, four million African Americans, newly freed from bondage, sought to integrate themselves into free society, into the educational, economic, and political life of the country. This began in late 1861 in Beaufort County, S.C., after Union forces won the Battle at Port Royal Sound and brought the ‘Lowcountry’ along the South Carolina coast under Union control. More than 10,000 slaves remained there when their owners fled the cotton and rice plantations. The then-Lincoln Administration decided to initiate the ‘Port Royal Experiment’ in Beaufort County to help the former slaves become self-sufficient.
The Reconstruction Era National Monument includes four sites in Beaufort County:
- Darrah Hall and Brick Baptist Church, within Penn School National Historic Landmark District on St. Helena Island, that includes the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and a church built by slaves for their owners in 1855 and then turned over to the former slaves in 1862 when their owners left the area.
- The Camp Saxton Site, on U.S. Navy property in Port Royal, where some of the first African Americans joined the U.S. Army, and the site where elaborate ceremonies were held on New Year’s Day 1863 to announce and celebrate the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- The Old Beaufort Firehouse, an historic building located in the midst of historic downtown Beaufort within walking distance of dozens more historic Reconstruction properties.
Beaufort was up against a number of other sites, all of which are deserving, but I think they made the right choice. First, there is a danger in framing Reconstruction around the violence experienced by African Americans throughout this period. While it certainly needs to be explored, Beaufort offers the perfect opportunity to frame Reconstruction around the steps that former slaves took to define freedom. Beaufort places the visitor on historic ground that goes back to the earliest stages of slavery and the development of the colonies right through to the recruitment of slaves into the United States army. The site highlights the achievements of Reconstruction as well as its limitations that eventually gave way to the Jim Crow era.
Finally, rather than see Reconstruction as beginning where the Civil War ends in 1865, Beaufort serves as an important reminder that the challenges of Reconstruction emerged as a result of the war itself, as early as 1862 along the South Carolina coast.