Postscript to “Reconstructing Memory”

The March 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era includes the article “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina the National Park’s First Reconstruction Unit.” It addresses a vigorous effort at the national and local level that began in December of 2000 and aimed to establish a new National Park to interpret the Reconstruction era through Congressional action; this initial action failed. The white supremacist interpretation of Reconstruction, flamed by controversies over removing the Confederate flag from the top of the state house in the 1990s and 2000, still had a strong hold on South Carolina. More than a decade later, and in the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, historians and preservationists embraced a new strategy to bypass Congress that finally succeeded.

During Obama’s last two years in office, advocates of a Reconstruction site realized that Congressional gridlock left a Presidential action as the only way forward. Many of the key players who had rallied around the cause in 2000 were pivotal in 2017 in pulling all the pieces together to make this designation possible. On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving office, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County.[1] The act identified four properties that would be part of the monument: Brick Baptist Church; Darrah Hall, on the Penn Campus; the firehouse on Craven Street in Beaufort, which is within walking distance of over fifty relevant sites; and the site of Camp Saxton, on the Naval Hospital grounds and where thousands freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered to hear it read on January 1, 1863.

Darrah Hall, on the grounds of Penn Center, is one of the four buildings designated by President Obama’s act to be part of a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

For decades the National Park Service (NPS) had been aware of a gaping hole in its telling of the story of Reconstruction. Beginning with the 2000 initiative, the NPS has maintained communication and provided support to individuals in Beaufort working toward a Reconstruction Monument. Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the NPS, had long held that too many Americans continued to think of the Reconstruction era as “a disaster” instead of seeing it as a time when big questions about democracy, race, education, war, and region were being played out.[2]

In 2015 the NPS completed four years of programing, seminars, and special events to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The time had arrived to move forward on the difficult Reconstruction era, a period that ended slavery and brought great hope, but also frustrations and disappointments. In April 2015, NPS commissioned Associate Professors Kate Masur of Northwestern University and Gregory Downs of the University of California–Davis to prepare a National Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction that would explore potential places for telling the story. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the fall of 2016, the two historians wrote, “we found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and the richness of interpretive possibility.”[3]

Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior, and Eric Foner, the foremost historian of the Reconstruction Era, came to Beaufort in 2000 to explore possibilities of a Reconstruction monument. Both continued to play crucial roles both behind the scenes and in public settings after the 2003 attempt failed. Babbitt acted as the broker between the local efforts and the Obama administration. In 2009 he helped found the Conservation Lands Foundation, an organization headquartered in Colorado that quietly worked to protect the nation’s significant landscapes.[4] Following up on extensive conversations with the Department of Interior, Congressional leaders, and Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Babbitt visited Beaufort County in April 2015 to discuss specific sites for a possible Reconstruction Monument. Foner, an ever strong and steady champion for the project, frequently emphasized that Beaufort County was the best place in the country for a new unit of NPS to tell the Reconstruction story. The urgency for Foner rested in his belief that “for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.” Furthermore, he often stressed how relevant the Reconstruction era is to current discussions of the definition of citizenship, the rights that citizens should enjoy, the relative powers of the federal government, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.[5]

On the Congressional front, on May 26, 2016, Representative James Clyburn introduced H.R. 5358, the Penn School Reconstruction Era National Monument Act. Representative Mark Sanford, Beaufort County’s Representative, joined as a cosponsor. Representatives Clyburn and Sanford were well aware that most monuments designated under the Antiquities Act had first been proposed for some sort of protective designation in legislation.[6]

Local supporters included some of those present in 2000; however, an effective new leader on the scene was Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. He served as the central point of communication between Babbitt, the NPS, Congressional leaders, and local property owners of land or sites that could possibly be a part of the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. After securing passage of a resolution by the Beaufort City Council in October 2016 to support a monument, he coordinated with other local mayors and community leaders for a wide array of organizations to pass similar resolutions.

The most difficult steps in the process were the negotiations between Department of Interior staff and those in Beaufort County who wished to make their property a part of the Reconstruction Monument. Many phone calls and meetings occurred to work through the tedious language on boundaries and easements that had to be hammered out in precise language. For example, Penn Center was deeding only Darrah Hall to the NPS but there needed to be wording about easements for the driveway to access the property as well as shared use of nearby bathroom facilities.[7]

To gauge local support for the Reconstruction Monument, the Director of the NPS, Jonathan Jarvis, and Congressman Clyburn brought delegations from Washington on December 16, 2016, to hold a public hearing. Expressing a ground swell of support, enthusiastic allies filled Brick Church on St. Helena Island. It was standing room only in the space where Penn Center held the first classes for formerly enslaved people in 1862. Over forty people–elected officials, middle school students, historians, leaders of non-profit organizations, and residents who traced their families back to the early days of the Penn Center–all spoke in moving ways about the importance of finally telling the Reconstruction story. Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said the new monument at Saxton Camp provided “the opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation . . . that brings to life the Reconstruction story.” The Mayor of Hilton Head, David Bennett, supported the effort but asked that Mitchelville, the site of the first self-governed freedmen’s community on Hilton Head, be included among the designated sites. Clyburn responded that the recommended properties were just a beginning and that the effort did not need to be limited. No voice of opposition was heard. Director Jarvis, who said he had attended many public hearings, was clearly moved by the outpouring of support and the heart felt words expressed. Michael Boulware Moore, Robert Smalls’s great-great grandson, echoed a frequent message that “now is the time.”[8]

Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and Representative James Clyburn confer during a visit on December 15, 2016, to the site of Saxton Camp where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time on January 1, 1863 to those freed by it. Photograph courtesy of Page Miller.

In Mayor Keyserling’s internet newsletter on February 28, 2017, he noted that local parties and NPS representatives were making progress at establishing the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. The NPS hopes to have an interim superintendent in place in a few months and plans are underway for a grand celebration in mid to late March to celebrate this new unit.[9]

For all the key players–Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Eric Foner, the NPS, Congressional leaders and Beaufortonians, all who had long known there was something very special about these historic sites and properties–the designation of a Reconstruction Monument brought forth a sigh of relief and a shout of joy. It will be three years before this new monument is fully up and running. Then the National Park Service will finally have the opportunities to tell the story of Reconstruction that has been either ignored or distorted for so long.

[1] Emma Dumain, “Just Under the Wire, Obama Establishes National Monument to Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County,” Post and Courier, January 12, 2017, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/just-under-the-wire-obama-establishes-national-monument-to-reconstruction/article_cb26b062-d91b-11e6-bf8b-7fd195453416.html.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/arts/park-service-project-would-address-the-reconstruction-era.html?ref=arts; Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2016), 5.

[3] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “The Perfect Spot for a Reckoning with Reconstruction,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016, sec. Opinions, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-perfect-spot-for-a-reckoning-with-reconstruction/2016/10/07/b884c1c0-7f60-11e6-9070-5c4905bf40dc_story.html?utm_term=.fcac7e29844c.

[4] Jonathan Romeo, “Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Presses Conservation Values,” The Durango Herald, November 12, 2015, https://durangoherald.com/articles/97805-former-interior-secretary-bruce-babbitt-presses-conservation-values.

[5] Eric Foner, “Struggle and Progress,” Jacobin, no. 18 (Summer 2015), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/eric-foner-reconstruction-abolitionism-republican-party-lincoln-emancipation/; Bill Rauch, “Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/can-the-south-make-room-for-reconstruction/500189/.

[6] Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, H.R. 5358, 114th Cong. (2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5358/text; Carol Hardy Vincent, “National Monuments and the Antiquities Act” (Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41330.pdf.

[7] These details were discussed in a conversation between Page Putnam Miller and Billy Keyserling on December 15, 2016.

[8] Page Putnam Miller was in attendance and spoke at the meeting. Stephen Fastenau, “Clyburn, Park Service Hear Overwhelming Support for Reconstruction Monument,” Beaufort Gazette, December 15, 2016.

[9] Billy Keyserling, “Update: Reconstruction Era Monument,” Live Work Stay with Billy K, February 28, 2017, http://www.liveworkstaybeaufort.com/update-reconstruction-era-monument/.

Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Page Putnam Miller received her PhD in 1979 from the University of Maryland. From 1980 to 2000, she served as executive director of a Washington advocacy organization, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation "Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction." She will begin a position as assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University in the fall.

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