The Reconstruction Era National Historical Park is a National Historical Park in Beaufort County.
Established by President Barack Obama in January 2017 it preserves and commemorates activities during the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War. The monument was the first U.S. National Monument dedicated to the Reconstruction Era. The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, signed March 12, 2019, by President Donald Trump, re-designated it as a national historical park.
Two U.S. Representatives from South Carolina, Democrat Jim Clyburn and Republican Mark Sanford championed the monument.
They sought to create the monument via an act of Congress. A proposal to create the Reconstruction Era National Monument through executive action received overwhelming support at a public meeting held by Clyburn and the Park Service in December 2016. The great-great-grandson of Robert Smalls—a freed slave who rose to become a member of Congress from South Carolina during Reconstruction—was a supporter of the monument’s designation.
Sites that are part of the historical park:
The monument includes four locations in and near Beaufort. The Beaufort area came under the control of the Union Army in November 1861. As a result, it was one of the first places in the United States where emancipated slaves “voted, bought property and created churches, schools and businesses.”
The four sites that are part of the park are:
- Darrah Hall at Penn Center (originally Penn School). Founded in 1862, this was an early school in the South for freed slaves. In 1864, it moved to its current location (now part of the monument) on Saint Helena Island. Even before the national monument was declared, Penn Center was part of a National Historic Landmark District. It is significant not only for its association with Reconstruction and civil rights, but also as a center of Gullah cultural heritage.
- Brick Baptist Church. Located next to Penn Center, this church building was constructed in 1855 “by slaves who were relegated to its balcony out of the sight and presence of white worshipers.” In 1861, after the Battle of Port Royal, some 8,000 freed slaves took control of the church. It is the oldest church on Saint Helena Island.
- The Old Beaufort Firehouse (706 Craven Street). The old firehouse, part of the Beaufort Historic District, houses the visitor center for the park.
- Camp Saxton Site/Emancipation Grove at Port Royal. this is the location where Union Army General Rufus Saxton publicly read the Emancipation Proclamation. 3,000 slaves from the surrounding Sea Islands on New Year’s Day 1863 listened. Additionally, it was the site where some of the first African-Americans were mustered into the U.S. Army, as enlisted soldiers in the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. The Emancipation Oak, an oak tree, is located in a nearby grove. The area is now part of Naval Hospital Beaufort.