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Beaufort County | Ground Zero for Our Nation’s Heritage Tourism

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

The Lowcountry is incredibly rich in heritage and culture and has a unique role in American history.  From Charleston to Savannah, there is no doubt that this area is the historic origin of Black America’s beginning. As a result, Beaufort County, can easily be considered ground zero for our nation’s heritage. Specifically, this area can lay claim to the origins of Black America because it’s where newly freed slaves first became self-sufficient legal citizens of the US. The port of Charleston served as the entry point for more African slaves than any other port in the world. As a result, during the period of slavery, South Carolina’s black population was far greater than the population of the whites who enslaved them. The economic impact of the slave trade made South Carolina a “slave society” but South Carolina is also the birthplace of Reconstruction the gateway to a post-slavery future. 

The south was in extreme turmoil after the Civil War, and many changes were underway that prepared the way for Reconstruction. Between 1865-1877 the southern states that had seceded from the union, were forced to operate under a reconstruction plan which would allow them to return to the Union. This story is an important part of America’s beginning and one that needs to be told as it really happened. According to Congressman Jim Clyburn, “for a long time, this period of history has been ignored and is often misunderstood or misrepresented.”

Congressman Jim Clyburn

Many are unaware of the significant role that the National Park Service plays in preserving American history. Among other things, they help to identify sites around the country that have historical importance. To date, the National Park Service has recognized over thirty sites nationwide that were important locations during the Civil War, however, none of them honored the importance of the Reconstruction Era. President Obama invoked the Antiquities Act prior to leaving office creating a multi-site Reconstruction Era national monument in the Beaufort area. It is expected that this monument will put the Beaufort area on the national stage. Four sites that already have been recognized as part of this initiative. They are: 

  • The Historic Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island was built by slaves in 1855.  The slaves were restricted to the second floor of the church where they could not be seen by their masters, and they were forced to stand during the services. The Historic Brick Baptist Church is an important part of the historic Penn Center District. It was the first location for Black students at the Penn School. The church continues to be a strong part of the St. Helena community and has an active congregation. 
Brick Baptist Church built by slaves in 1855 St. Helena Island, South Carolina
Photo Credit: LMGS
Brick Baptist Church built by slaves in 1855, St. Helena Island, SC
Photo Credit: LMGS
  • Penn Center’s Historic Darrah Hall is one of the oldest structures on the 50-acre Penn campus. The Penn School, as it was formally called, was one of the first schools in the United States to provide academic training, and an “industrial education” in practical trades for freed slaves. Since its inception, Penn Center has been central to the growth and development of Black American history. It served as a safe haven and housing for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he stayed in the Lowcountry, and it was a pivotal location for activity during the Civil Rights era. Penn Center is one of the most significant historical and cultural institutions in the US today.
Historic Penn Center’s Darrah Hall
Photo Credit: Photo by National Park Service
  • The Emancipation Oak tree, on Smith Plantation, also known as Camp Saxon, is now on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital in Port Royal. This is the location where, on January 1, 1863, General Rufus Saxton chose to call an assembly for one of the earliest readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time, slaves thought that if they didn’t hear the emancipation read personally at the tree, then they would not be set free.
The Emancipation Oak Tree at Camp Saxton, Beaufort, SC
Camp Saxon in Beaufort, SC is the home for the Emancipation Oak
  • Beaufort’s Old Craven Street Fire Station dates back to 1874. The firehouse was central to everything that happened in local government during the Reconstruction Era. The physical location of the firehouse is important. Its central location will enable visitors to walk to 70 different historic sites. Over time, Beaufort’s Old Craven Street Fire Station has become a hub for learning about the Reconstruction period. The firehouse is now the location of the monument’s visitor’s center.
The Old Craven Firehouse in the Beaufort National Historic Landmark District houses the
Reconstruction Era National Monument’s Visitor Center

Photo Credit: NPS/J. Cadoff
The Old Craven Firehouse, was converted into the National Park Service location for the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in Beaufort, SC
Photo Credit: Honika Plowdeniz

Originally, the list had five locations, which included Robert Smalls’ Beaufort home. However, it was not included in the first round of historic locations, but this is just the beginning of the process. The National Park Service will make choices about future sites. Historic Mitchelville on Hilton Head was not included in the first submission, however, Congressman James Clyburn has stated that he recognizes Mitchelville’s importance to the Reconstruction story, and indicated that this is just the beginning of the process of acknowledging the historic importance of the entire Beaufort area. From his vantage point, it was most important to get the “process moving forward.” This is “a first step in protecting and preserving the many Reconstruction Era sites in Beaufort County” Clyburn said.

Even though Mitchelville and the Robert Smalls house are not part of the monument, we’re not looking at a final product, according to the Congressman. He said that he is “committed to continue working to ensure that all of the deserving sites are given their due”.  

During a public meeting to discuss the national monument with the National Park Service and Congressman Clyburn, he said, “I was pleased and extremely impressed by the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of support from local community members for the designation of a National Monument. There are so many important lessons to be learned about the Reconstruction Era by the current generation and future generations.” 

The public celebration and dedication of the national monument was held at Penn Center on March 18, 2018. Plans for each of the locations are being developed by the National Park Service to establish their future use.   

Click here for more on the Lowcountry’s Heritage Trail or the Tale of Two Mayors, who set the ground work towards making it happen.

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