By Barney Blakeney
The Reconstruction Era was the period spanning the early Civil War years until the start of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s. It was a time of transformation as the nation grappled with integrating millions of newly freed slaves into its social, political, and economic life. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth constitutional amendments which abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law, and gave all males the right to vote. Ultimately Reconstruction’s unfulfilled promise led to the Civil Rights Movement. It is a period in American History largely ignored and neglected. South Carolina will become the first state to officially recognize that history through the development of the Reconstruction Era National Monument. The public is asked to help.
An effort to recognize the role of Reconstruction in American History began almost 20 years ago. But substantive steps toward that goal were not realized until January 12 when outgoing President Barack Obama signed a proclamation to create a monument in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Four sites – Brick Baptist Church and Darrah Hall on the campus of Penn Center in St. Helena Island, Camp Saxton in Port Royal on the Naval Hospital campus, and the Old Beaufort Firehouse in Beaufort, will become the first monuments to Reconstruction in the nation and will provide a national platform for telling the story of Reconstruction.
The sites will be administered by the National Park Service, said Michael Allen, Community Partnership specialist for the park service.
Reconstruction in many ways was the nation’s second founding. It began when the first United States soldiers arrived in slaveholding territories, and enslaved people on plantations, 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’’, and Beaufort County in particular. Seven months after the start of the Civil War, Admiral Samuel F. DuPont led a successful attack on Port Royal Sound bringing a swath of the South Carolina coast under Union control. White residents (less than twenty percent of the population), including the wealthy owners of rice and cotton plantations abandoned their country plantations and homes in the town of Beaufort. More than 10,000 African Americans—about one-third of the enslaved population of the Sea Islands at the time—refused to flee the area with their owners.
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, Beaufort County became the birthplace of Reconstruction. With Federal forces in charge of the Sea Islands, the Department of the Treasury, with the support of President Lincoln and the War Department turned the military occupation into a social experiment, known as the Port Royal Experiment, to help former slaves become self-sufficient.
They enlisted antislavery and religious societies in the North to raise resources and recruit volunteers for the effort. Missionary organizations headquartered in the Northeast established outposts in Beaufort County. 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.
Penn School was constructed across the field from Brick Church on 50 acres of property donated by Hastings Gantt, an African American landowner. Penn School helped many African Americans gain self-respect and self-reliance and integrate into free society. The faculty also provided other support, including medical care, social services, and employment assistance. Penn School would evolve into the Penn Center and remain a crucial place for education, community, and political organizing into the present.
The public is being asked to provide input in how the monument will develop. Three open house sessions — scheduled for July 24, 25 and 27 at the Penn Center, Town of Port Royal, and City of Beaufort, respectively, were conducted. Interested citizens still can share their thoughts on what is most important about the Reconstruction Era National Monument, potential issues that could threaten future preservation and commemoration of the site, and what opportunities exist to improve the protection of and provide access to this national treasure by going online at parkplanning.nps.gov/REER, emailing to [email protected], telephoning (404) 227-1507or writing to Reconstruction Era National Monument, P.O. Box 1719, Beaufort, SC 29901. The project team will consider public input while developing the plan.