EVEN AS Jan. 20 looms, President Obama has a chance to burnish his legacy, and with an action that would help the nation grapple with its legacy, too: Designate a federal monument to Reconstruction.
Monument-making is familiar to Mr. Obama, who has established more than any other president. These aim to conserve natural wonders in some instances, historical and cultural sites in others. New York City’s Stonewall Inn, representing a key moment in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, is an example of the latter. A Reconstruction monument would be also, fulfilling the original purpose of the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows a president unilaterally to preserve historically significant sites for posterity.
The city of Beaufort in South Carolina may well earn the distinction. It has a dense concentration of historic sites, all in their original locations and all in nearly their original condition. It was a hub for African- American organizing throughout the 1800s and 1900s and home to heroes of the Reconstruction such as Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who commandeered a Confederate vessel, sailed it north and later returned to the South to become a congressman.
Local leaders such as Mayor Billy Keyserling have collected over a thousand signatures supporting Beaufort’s designation, including more than 100 from historians who agree on the site’s significance. Organizers expect to send the White House a proposal soon. Then all they will need is the president’s signature.
More than 70 national parks and monuments pertain to aspects of the Civil War. None cover what came next — years during which African Americans built lives in freedom against great odds, suffered as they were pushed back down and continued fighting for their rights. A Reconstruction monument would begin to set straight a record that has seen years of twisting and tangling. It could aid Americans in the excruciating but necessary national exercise of confronting an inglorious history. It would tell old stories that have gone untold for too long and give rise to new ones.
At a Beaufort community meeting to discuss the monument, a woman held up a piece of paper wrapped in cellophane: Many children think former slaves received 40 acres and a mule, she said, but this was the deed to five acres of land her grandfather paid for. A city council member who had grown up with his great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier, as his hero, stood up, too. He still thought his ancestor was a great man, but on the wrong side. That’s what came from just talk of a monument in Beaufort. Much more could come if Mr. Obama acts.