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Time to do the Reconstruction Trail ourselves

8 mins read

Photo above: The Robert Smalls House at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort is where Congressman Robert Smalls (1839-1915) began his life in slavery and where, after emancipation, he returned to purchase the house and live out his days.

By Bill Rauch

Budget negotiations are in full swing in Washington now for the last budget over which the Obama Administration will preside. And there is silence in Washington once again about the National Park Service’s proposed Reconstruction Trail here in Beaufort County.

Throughout the Obama Administration it has seemed that, as politicians like to say, “The stars are lined up” for bringing this modest proposal to fruition. Mayor Billy Keyserling working with Congressman James Clyburn and others seemed to be just the group to get for the city and county a National Park Service designation that would put a federally-funded plaque in front of The Robert Smalls House on Prince Street and in front of the Arsenal on Craven Street in Beaufort, another couple of plaques at The Penn Center and The Emancipation Oak on St. Helena Island, a plaque at the other Emancipation Oak on the Naval Hospital grounds in Port Royal, a similar designation at the site of the freed slaves community known as Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, and at several other nearby places.

All these places, each significant in U.S. History during the years immediately following the Civil War, would then be gathered into a “trail” about which a brochure would be written and distributed by the National Parks Service. This simple mechanism would help bring tourists to the area to enjoy Beaufort’s restaurants and maybe even overnight in Beaufort’s hotel rooms that now fill up only two nights a week for graduations at Parris Island.

But the initiative seems to have run completely out of steam.

That it has is, of course, good news to some – like the Sons of Confederate Veterans whose representatives have lobbied effectively against the effort. But it is not good news to Beaufort’s business community. And it should be an embarrassment to elected officials who, in the name of business development, continue to spend hundreds of thousands of locally-raised tax dollars each year to support and promote Beaufort’s (NO) Commerce Park that they seem unaware is located in the heart of the AICUZ at the end of MCAS Beaufort’s main runway where the roar of F-35s climbing to 1000 ft. is deafening. There is a water tower painted in orange squares that stands next to the park’s entrance sign. Prospective tenants will inevitably be curious about military aircraft and they will soon learn that the Navy has said in its most recent Environmental Impact Statement that F-35 flights at MCAS Beaufort are expected to quadruple in the next few years.

But I digress…

Beaufort’s Reconstruction Trail had an auspicious beginning in 2000 in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. Then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (Interior has oversight over the Parks Service) was seated next to Columbia University history professor Eric Foner at a White House dinner. A dozen years before, in 1988, Foner had brought out the big book on the Reconstruction period. According to Babbitt, he turned to Foner at the dinner and said, “You know professor, the Parks Service has parks, sites and trails all over the country that celebrate every twist and turn in American history, but there is none for the Reconstruction era. If the Parks Service were to designate such a site, where should it be?”

And without missing a beat the nation’s foremost historian of 19th century America replied, “Beaufort, South Carolina, the site of the Port Royal Experiment.”

In the weeks following that dinner Secretary Babbitt organized for himself and key Parks personnel from the National Parks Service office in Atlanta a tour of the significant Reconstruction era sites in Beaufort County. As the newly elected the Mayor of the City of Beaufort, I went on the tour, which is where I heard firsthand Secretary Babbitt’s story of the proposal’s conception.

There was excitement in Beaufort’s business community about the Reconstruction Trail then, but Secretary Babbitt had wisely cautioned, “There is not time for us to do this now. It must be the next administration.” And the next administration was of course two terms of highly-partisan George W. Bush who meticulously closed out Congressman Clyburn and the other Democrats.

But that was then. What of the Obama Administration and President Obama’s famous and real friendship with his long-time ally, Congressman Clyburn the primary sponsor of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor? With Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling doing “the ask” couldn’t this group find the money in the $3.8 trillion dollar Federal budget for a handful of plaques and a brochure?

Apparently not.

Okay, so maybe it’s time to get real and try another approach. Could the Beaufort County Council maybe ask the Beaufort County Preservation Review Board to seek a Beaufort County Accommodations Tax grant to hire as a consultant a preservation historian to identify the appropriate Beaufort County Reconstruction era sites and assemble a draft brochure that describes their significance? The consultant could maybe even put in some driving directions to help visitors find their way up the trail. Then next year maybe they can put in another proposal to buy and put up the plaques and print up and distribute the brochures. By that time maybe the city will be on board and they can go to their A-Tax committee to get a few dollars to promote the trail and sell some meals and hotel rooms.

After 16 years of waiting for Uncle Sam to do it for us, let’s just do it ourselves. It’s not like it’s such a tough job that it needs Seal Team Six.

County A-Tax grant applications, according to Beaufort County’s website, are due in September so there’s still plenty of time to get something going here don’t you think?

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