By MINDY LUCAS
U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham toured several Reconstruction Era National Historical Park sites in Beaufort on Tuesday, July 2, as part of a scheduled visit that included a group of student journalists.
About 20 people, including volunteers, park staff and a group of area students, gathered at the park’s visitor center in the Old Beaufort Firehouse on Carteret Street for the tour’s kickoff.
Formerly known as the Reconstruction Era National Monument, the site, which includes four properties throughout Beaufort County, was re-designated a national historical park in 2017 by then President Barack Obama.
Cunningham, who worked with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn on the legislation to rename and expand the park, spoke for about 25 minutes, while the students shot video as part of an educational program associated with the project.
The Congressman reflected on the period in time, sometimes referred to as the most misunderstood period in American history by historians, and what it means to South Carolina.
“This country has some scars on it, especially the South,” he said. “But it’s important to tell it in an objective way and in an honest way that this is where we’ve come from, but this is where we’re going.”
In addition to the Old Beaufort Firehouse, the group toured Darrah Hall and the Brick Church on the grounds of the historic Penn Center on St. Helena Island. Camp Saxton in Port Royal, is part of the park’s listed sites, but not currently open to the public.
With the help of more than 100 local, regional and national advisors, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling has spearheaded the project’s outreach in Beaufort.
Keyserling said one of the advisory group’s first areas of focus has been to develop educational components, such as the Story Catchers program which brought the students to the Old Firehouse on Tuesday.
The group wanted to do something “organic”, he said, that would help take the lessons of Reconstruction across South Carolina and beyond.
“Teaching students the untold story of the second founding of America will serve as the model to help transform the country with lessons that started here in Beaufort,” Keyserling said.
The program, which teaches students real-world journalism and documentary-style skills, will equip students with the ability to share and pass on the area’s history to others. The group recently made a 60-minute documentary featuring a play about Harriett Tubman that was researched, written and performed by Beaufort Middle School students.
The initiative will also include a “Teaching the Teachers” program with the first session to start beginning July 17 in Beaufort. Teachers who attend the program will be presented with a new curriculum along with ideas on teaching Reconstruction.
The initiative’s educational programs are just the launch pad for national and even international study, Keyserling said.
In addition, the group is working to build a network of other Reconstruction-era sites or possible sites across the region that will enhance and help tell the story of Reconstruction and its impact on American history.
“One of the things we’re all challenged with, is while putting so much focus on Beaufort, we don’t get to say it all happened in Beaufort,” Keyserling said. “But all of these things will serve as the pilot program and each of the pieces are now in place and are working.”
John Flemming, a rising junior at Beaufort High School, was one of eight students that followed Cunningham on Tuesday, documenting the event.
“It makes me feel connected to my hometown,” he said.
Born into slavery, Smalls stole a Confederate boat, sailed it past Charleston’s forts and turned it over to Union forces.
“There are so many good people here,” said Flemming. “Some aspects (of the era) are obviously a real blemish on our history, but you have to take the good with the bad – like Robert Smalls. He is a great American who came from Beaufort.”
Others who spoke to the tour group included National Park Service Superintendent Scott Teodorski, Board and Interim Director for the Penn Center, Marion Burns, and Michael Allen, a 32-year veteran of the National Park Service.
Top: U.S. Congressman Joe Cunningham, D-SC makes his remarks while Superintendent Scott Teodorski, of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park looks on.
Bottom: The Rev. Abraham Murray of Brick Baptist Church near Penn Center on St. Helena Island, address those participating in the Reconstruction Era tour of of Penn Center. Seated at left is U.S. Congressman Joe Cunningham, D-SC.
Photos by Bob Sofaly