President Obama has named a new national monument in Beaufort County that will focus on historic sites related to the period immediately after the Civil War, when newly-freed slaves experienced many civil rights for about a dozen years after the war until losing them again to resurgent white supremacists.
The Reconstruction Era National Monument was one of three new monuments declared by President Obama on Thursday, according to the White House. The other two sites were also related to black civil rights history: Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and Freedom Riders National Monument, both in Alabama.
The new monument will be the seventh National Park Service unit in South Carolina — and just the third in the state that is not related to military history.
South Carolina’s Sixth District Congressman Jim Clyburn had helped lobby for the park’s creation. “For a long time, this period of history has been ignored and is often misunderstood or misrepresented,” Clyburn said in a statement immediately after the announcement. “Beginning January 1, 1863 and continuing until March 31, 1877, newly freed slaves were guaranteed civil rights by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution. They bought property, founded communities, built schools and organized churches, and were elected to political offices.”
The Beaufort County monument will be the first National Park Service unit devoted to Reconstruction — the postwar period between 1866 and 1877 when federal troops occupied former Confederate states. It was at this time that former male slaves were guaranteed the right to vote and other citizenship rights in the U.S. Constitution and many were able to get elected into office. However, former Confederates gradually reclaimed power and many blacks saw themselves disenfranchised again with the withdrawl of federal forces.
The monument will not be a single location, but multiple sites across Beaufort County, including Brick Baptist Church and Darrah Hall at the existing Penn Center on St. Helena Island, as well as the Old Firehouse in downtown Beaufort and parts of Camp Saxton in Port Royal where the Emancipation Proclamation was read to former slaves on New Year’s Day in 1863.
Penn Center is a community center that is the modern-day descendent of the Penn School, which was the first school in the South set up to educate former slaves.
The president’s order came nearly a month after National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis toured the sites. Jarvis was responding to an application from Penn Center and county officials.