President OKs Reconstruction monument

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Photo above: A standing-room crowd at St. Helena’s historic Brick Baptist Church in December strongly supported the efforts to create a federally-designated Reconstruction Era monument in the Beaufort area.

Staff reports

President Barack Obama recently gave the go-ahead to create a national monument to the Reconstruction Era with sites in Beaufort, St. Helena Island and Port Royal.

It caps a 16-year effort to recognize a critical stage in America’s history, said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

“This is a step that needed to be taken, and the time was right,” Keyserling said. “Beaufort County is the focal point for the Reconstruction Era and this federal designation legitimizes what a lot of us have been saying for a long time.”

On Jan. 12, Obama announced the creation of a national monument to the Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County. His decision came after a standing-room crowd at St. Helena’s historic Brick Baptist Church in December strongly supported the federal parks designation.

The monument area includes Darrah Hall at Penn Center and Brick Baptist Church, both on St. Helena Island; Camp Saxton and the Emancipation Oak Grove, both located on what’s now the Naval Hospital Beaufort in Port Royal; and a former Beaufort firehouse in downtown Beaufort that is within walking distance of about 70 locations important to the story, including the home of Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and congressman.

“Schools were opened to educate freed slaves and land ownership, entrepreneurship and voting rights for black Americans were established” during Reconstruction, Keyserling said.

“Successful partnerships were harvested by yet-to-be publicly recognized black and white political, educational, civic and business champions who began to make this a more equitable and just society. During the period Beaufort enjoyed one of its highest levels of economic prosperity, created by freedmen and local businesses, in our more than 300-year history.

“The national recognition of Reconstruction, so often ignored or intentionally left out, can unlock this untold history, lessons, some bad and many good, that have for years kept us from fully knowing the broad array of dreams, accomplishments and failures of our past and the realization of the American dream,” he said.

A National Park Service study showed Beaufort County was the best place for a monument to the period because of the large number of nearby important sites.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn led the effort to create the Reconstruction Era monument and held a public hearing in December at St. Helena Island.

“I want to thank President Obama for establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument,” he said in a statement. “For a long time, this period of history has been ignored and is often misunderstood or misrepresented.”

Keyserling and his brother, Paul Keyserling, donated the firehouse as part of the monument. The mayor said the designation, coupled with increasing awareness of Beaufort and the Lowcountry as a tourist destination, could help showcase a forgotten period in America’s history.

“Beaufort’s history is more than big homes on the river bluff, and it’s more than European colonists finding a Lowcountry home. The history of the Lowcountry is a story about people working very hard, day after day, to create a home and sustain a community,” Keyserling said. “We sometimes forget the role that African Americans and lower-income people played in making Beaufort a sustainable city that has survived and thrived for more than 300 years.”

While the monument includes four of the most significant sites, a group called Partners in Reconstruction History has noted more than 100 sites, including the first self-governed community of freedmen at Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, which may be incorporated into a network.

This interweaving network will serve as a laboratory so that scholars, students, residents and visitors will be able to delve more deeply into the history.

The effort to put a Reconstruction Era Monument recommendation before Obama was spearheaded at the national level by Clyburn, D-SC, and Rep. Mark Sanford, R-SC, and locally by Keyserling, Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray, the Rev. Abraham Murray of Brick Baptist Church and Rodell Lawrence of Penn Center.

“The effort engaged residents of Beaufort and achieved huge support and encouragement from local and national historians, educators and preservationists,” Keyserling said. “It was collaboration driven by a collective passion I have rarely seen.”

Obama used the Antiquities Act to establish the new national monument. The act has been used by various presidents 150 times to create national monuments, said Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service.

“Reconstruction is a poorly-understood, poorly-interpreted piece of American history,” Jarvis told the gathering at Brick Baptist Church in December. “This (area) is the heart, the beginning, of Reconstruction.”

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