Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis; Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. They are the editors of the collection “The World the Civil War Made.”
As President Obama heralded the opening of the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, he argued that we must confront all of American history, even the parts that “make us uncomfortable,” if we are to “learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.”
Obama can deliver on the promise of those words by using his authority to create a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort County, S.C., so that Americans can confront the dramatic victories and bitter defeats of a crucial time in our nation’s history.
For a century and a half, the United States has struggled to commemorate — or even to remember — what happened in the wake of slavery’s abolition. During the 20th century, propagandists and white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake, while Northern nationalists often forgot a period that did not fit with commonly held narratives of progress. At National Park Service sites, as in popular movies and novels, it proved far easier to talk about the Civil War than to grapple with what came next.
Considering Reconstruction’s importance to American history, it is remarkable that not a single national park or monument is dedicated to its commemoration. In the period that began with the destruction of slavery during the Civil War and ended with the imposition of Jim Crow, the nation underwent a Second Founding as new constitutional amendments ended slavery, created equal protection under the law and national citizenship, and prevented disenfranchisement based on race. Four million people of African descent, subjugated as chattel slaves in 1861, were by 1870 building churches, schools and civic organizations. Hundreds of thousands of black voters elected congressmen, legislators and thousands of local officials.
This was an era of extraordinary democratic promise, but it was also one of great disappointment. Talking about Reconstruction means remembering how frequently white Americans resorted to violence and corruption to disenfranchise black voters and passed discriminatory laws to block African American economic and social equality, while the U.S. government stood by passively.
In Beaufort County, all aspects of Reconstruction’s story are well represented. The U.S. Army occupied the area in November 1861. Immediately, slaves from the Sea Islands and surrounding lowlands escaped to the town, where many of the men enlisted to fight for the Union. In June 1863, U.S. soldiers accompanied by Harriet Tubman on the Combahee Ferry raid freed hundreds of slaves in nearby plantations.
Beaufort was also the home of Robert Smalls, an enslaved pilot who steered the CSS Planter to the U.S. Navy in 1862, used his reward money to purchase his former master’s house and became a local political leader. In 1868, Smalls was a delegate in the state constitutional convention that enfranchised black men and created free public education. Smalls went on to serve five terms in Congress. And he lived long enough to see the eclipse of many of his dreams, fighting fruitlessly against disenfranchisement and Jim Crow segregation as a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention.
The history of this transformative era is visible all around Beaufort:
●On the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital in neighboring Port Royal, where on Jan. 1, 1863, Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton read the Emancipation Proclamation and former slave and future legislator Prince Rivers urged the crowd of ex-slaves to make a new nation.
●At the Penn School on nearby Saint Helena Island, where Northern missionaries and African American teachers established schools for freedpeople, and where the site now called Penn Center would become an educational and community hub for a century and a half, including years as a base for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
●In the markers for the Mitchelville settlement on nearby Hilton Head Island, where freedpeople established a self-governing community in 1862.
●In the historic home in Beaufort where Robert Smalls lived.
●In churches such as Brick Baptist on Saint Helena Island and Tabernacle Baptist in Beaufort, where ex-slaves formed their own still-thriving congregations.
●In the Arsenal, the site of drilling and weapon storage for Confederate militias, Republican Reconstruction governments and the Democrats who overthrew them.
●In the Beaufort National Cemetery, where more than 14,000 soldiers were buried, including members of two African American regiments.
National monument designations sometimes create controversy — criticism killed an effort to create a Reconstruction site in Beaufort more than a decade ago — but the idea now enjoys strong support. In June, South Carolina Reps. James Clyburn, a Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a Republican, co-sponsored a bill to name the Penn Center campus near Beaufort a national monument. Many community leaders know the area’s Reconstruction history and want to promote it. The National Park Service itself is eager to contend with Reconstruction. The agency recently published a Reconstruction Handbook and commissioned us to write a theme study on the era and explore potential places for telling its story. We found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and richness of interpretive possibility.
Reconstruction lives on around us, critical but often unrecognized. By designating a Reconstruction monument in Beaufort County, Obama would help ensure that this period’s crucial history is better understood. He would also show the world how important it is that we continue talking about the fundamental questions of democracy, race and citizenship that trouble our politics to this day.