South Carolina’s newest national monument was dedicated Saturday, formally opening to the public but still needing years of work before it can get fully up to speed.
The Reconstruction Era National Monument covers five different sites across Beaufort County that focus on African-American history in the years immediately following the Civil War. The National Park Service held a ceremony at one of the those sites — the Penn Center — on Saturday afternoon.
“The sites are just to give context,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn said. “I think the important thing is for the story to be told.”
Clyburn had spent 17 years pushing for the park’s creation, upset at what he feels has been the neglect or deliberate falsehoods told about the brief period of American history where former slaves and freedmen were able to vote and hold office across the South before whites used violence and the judicial system to gradually remove those rights once again in the 1880s. Historians peg Reconstruction as occurring between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and when the last federal troops were pulled out of South Carolina in 1877.
The Penn Center itself is the descendant of the first public school in the South set up to educate former slaves. Other sites include the Beaufort History Museum, the old Beaufort fire station, Bible Baptist Church and Darrah Hall on St. Helena Island, and Camp Saxton in Port Royal — which hosted African-American troops who served with the Union Army during the occupation of Beaufort in 1862-1863.
For now, National Park Service (NPS) Acting Director Mike Reynolds said his agency is partnering with the existing sites at the Penn Center and the history museum to help serve visitors. Those centers have maps to direct tourists to each of the significant sites. In the meantime, NPS is asking for the public’s help creating a general management plan.
“What’s really great about this monument is that it encompasses places that already exist in this community,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “So folks like the Beaufort Chamber of Commerce and the Penn Center have stepped up to sort of provide a temporary visitor center… they’ll be able to steer (visitors) to the right places.”
NPS plans to hire a park superintendent in the coming months and hold public input meetings this summer as it decides how best to present the story of Reconstruction for decades to come.
Clyburn said he has a personal connection to St. Helena Island: the Penn Center was a meeting place for organizers in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. “This was the one place of refuge that we had,” he said. “We’d come down here from school (Clyburn was a student at SC State University at the time) and black students and white students felt safe in these boundaries. This was the one place where they wouldn’t arrest us.”