‘Reconstructing’ Beaufort’s complicated history

5 mins read

By Scott Graber

It’s the Friday after Christmas and I’m sitting in front of our hearth where a well-tended fire is burning through several cedar logs that were felled by Hurricane Irma. These December days I get my contentment sitting in front of the fire and saying, “Alexa, play ‘Me and Bobby McGee.”” 

Then, as if by magic, Janis Joplin comes roaring through the speakers in our living room transporting me back to my youth.

“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, feeling nearly faded as my jeans. Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before a rain, and rode us all the way to New Orleans.” 

Recently I’ve learned that this tastefully furnished, big-windowed room was built by a black man named John Mardenborough. I’ve also learned that Mardenborough came to Port Royal from Edgefield County in 1879.

Those that know their South Carolina history remember that Edgefield County was not a good place to be in the 1870s if you happened to be black. In fact, Mardenborough had been desperate to leave and had written the American Colonization Society begging the Society to send him and 75 other black folks to Liberia. 

“A black woman comes to me and tells me her husband was killed last night in her presence by white men and her children burned to death in the house. She says her person was outraged by these men and then she was whipped — such things are common occurrences.” 

The next thing we know for sure is that this same John Mardenborough became postmaster in Port Royal and then, in 1881, he bought our lot for $350. Some years later it was sold to Scheper for $1,200. This differential leads me to believe that Mardenborough built his house (our house) sometime after 1881. We also know that he was married to Parolee Burgess Mardenborough, who died in August 1903. Her obituary reads, in part: 

“She descended from worthy stock that was connected to the editor’s family in days gone by when the pall of slavery covered this land … to those who do not understand the question, we desire to say to the families of former slaveowners and the families of former slaves feel an attachment for each other no time can sever.”

Despite yellow fever, endemic malaria and a hurricane in 1893 that flattened Beaufort County, Mardenborough prospered. He had a good job, got involved in politics, raised a family and had enough optimism left over to build a house. In all probability he sat in front of this very same hearth and counted his blessings.

Mardenborough’s story is one of many stories that the National Park Service will eventually tell when Beaufort’s Reconstruction Monument is up and running. Right at the moment the actual story—called the “Foundation Document” — is being prepared by the National Park Service in Denver, Colorado. 

That document will center on Brick Church, Penn Center, Camp Saxton and the physical remnants of that strange, sometimes brutal time. But we really don’t have the standard props — there’s no fort, no “El Capitan” to be climbed, no well-barbered, cannon-accessoried battlefield to explore. Mostly its going to be faded photographs — enhanced by a plow or an ancient wagon — and stories of a resilient people who bought small plots of land, and found a way to survive, even prosper, by “mining” phosphate or raising cotton. 

I’m not thinking the Reconstruction Monument will bring the hordes of people who routinely overrun Yellowstone and Yosemite. The folks that come here won’t be hiking down into canyons or viewing the ruins of the Anasazi Indians. Rather, these folks will mostly get a complicated, much debated narrative about a tumultuous, troubled time. Maybe they will be inspired by that story. Maybe not. But whatever, it’s a credit to Beaufort County and the National Park Service that this story — the Reconstruction story — will be told. But, of course, one wonders what kind of refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs and key chains will be sold in the gift shop?  

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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