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  • Louis Venters

Just in Time, a New Reconstruction Era National Monument

Emancipation celebration, Camp Saxton, Port Royal, SC, Jan. 1, 1863

On this Martin Luther King Day, I am happy to add my voice to the chorus that has been thanking the Obama Administration for the announcement last Thursday of the creation of three new units of the National Park system that commemorate the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Two in Alabama mark a number of important sites in Birmingham and a bloody stop on the first Freedom Ride in 1961 in Anniston, respectively.

But it's the third, the Reconstruction Era National Monument in and around Beaufort, South Carolina, that stands out in significance and really touches my heart. It is the first National Monument to commemorate Reconstruction, the pivotal period after the Civil War in which the country began to deal with the effects of the end of slavery. The sites included in the new National Monument include two buildings at Penn Center, established in 1862 the South's first formal school for former slaves, on St. Helena Island; the remnants of Camp Saxton, site of an elaborate reading of the Emancipation Proclamation to black soldiers on January 1, 1863, in Port Royal; and the Old Beaufort Firehouse, which will be developed into a visitor center, in downtown Beaufort. As the park takes shape in coming years, it will appropriately interpret the promises and disappointments of the Reconstruction era in a county that was arguably its epicenter.

Penn Center, St. Helena Is., SC

As Eric Foner, Columbia University professor of history and one of the country's foremost experts on Reconstruction, noted in an article in the New York Times, Reconstruction is "still too often seen as a story of corrupt Northern carpetbaggers and incompetent black politicians, rather than an inspiring but difficult period that saw the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments as well as many social and economic advances for African-Americans." Finally, here is an opportunity for the National Park system to tell this story accurately for a broad public. It could hardly be a more urgent task, as many of the same vital questions of racial justice, economic opportunity, and national identity that were foremost in people's minds during Reconstruction seem to be thrust ever more forcefully into the public consciousness. More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and more than 50 since the high point of the civil rights movement, Reconstruction is as fresh and relevant as ever in discussions of the country's future.

This is a signal victory for a broad coalition of local citizens, historic preservation professionals, heritage organizations, and elected officials from the local to the federal level, who have been working for a decade and a half to secure the designation. I'm particularly proud to say that the initial effort, begun in 2000, involved faculty and students from the Public History Program at the University of South Carolina, of which I am a proud graduate. That project was scuttled under pressure from white supremacist organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but the National Park Service persisted, conducting a new study under the direction of Michael Allen in 2015. The current designation had the support of U.S. Reps. James Clyburn and Mark Sanford but did not require a vote in Congress. Rather, the new National Monuments were created by executive action under provisions of the venerable Antiquities Act of 1906, one of the pillars of our national system for the protection of cultural and natural heritage.

Congratulations to all who were involved, over many years, in bringing this effort to a successful conclusion. And here's to the great years ahead developing this park and bringing its vital stories to the attention of ever-wider audiences!

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