September 6th, 2017

Nearly a year ago, Bill Rauch wrote The National Park Service Is Reviving Reconstruction for The Atlantic. At the time I found Rauch’s piece fascinating and, in light of my current novel project set in Reconstructionist Charleston, helpful in the extreme. I dropped a note to Rauch this week asking how recent events in Charlottesville, Baltimore and elsewhere may have affected the Part Service’s program.

In the mean time I re-read the piece through a current lens and what leapt out at me was the tale of Robert Smalls. Rauch wrote:

In the heart of Beaufort’s spectacular 304-acre historic district is the “Henry McKee House.” This gracious two-story residence with the slave “cottage” still out back is where Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born into slavery (under McKee, whom historians also believe was probably Smalls’s father) and where, after the Civil War, Smalls returned—to purchase McKee’s house and cottage at a tax sale. During the early stages of the war, Smalls had been among a group of abolitionists who met with Abraham Lincoln to persuade the president to allow African Americans to fight as full-fledged members of the U.S. Army and Navy.

Smalls himself became a Union war hero. [Beginning with the tale of the CSS Planter, JH] And after the war, Smalls continued to advocate for blacks in the military. Back in Beaufort, he also founded a school, a church, and a newspaper for the black community. Perhaps more significantly, Smalls represented Beaufort in the South Carolina State Legislature for five years, in the South Carolina State Senate for four years, and then in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven years. A modest National Historic Landmark plaque is affixed to the wall outside of Smalls’s house, but it says nothing about why the house is historic or who Smalls was—nothing about the slave who fought for emancipation, returned home to buy his former master’s house, and then became the region’s most extraordinary figure.

In 1993, U.S. Representative James Clyburn became South Carolina’s first African American member of the House since Reconstruction. The previous African American to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Congress was Smalls, who left the post in 1887. Clyburn, who has been virtually alone among South Carolina’s elected officials in carrying the Reconstruction torch, was the keynote speaker at the symposium in Columbia, where he recalled Smalls’s then-groundbreaking congressional proposals for free public education and government support for the disabled and elderly. Clyburn also referred to Smalls as “the most consequential figure in the Reconstruction era.” Smalls’s life would seem to justify the claim.

But another congressman, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, famously swept the public memory of the Smalls House and the rest of the proposed Beaufort Reconstruction History Park (as it was called then) under the rug in 2004. Wilson is most widely known for being rebuked by the House of Representatives after shouting, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. According to Allen, when Wilson was asked in 2004 for his blessing for the then-proposed Beaufort Reconstruction History Park, Wilson quietly told the National Park Service’s higher-ups, “Not this, not here, not now.”

When I first began to learn about Reconstruction, I turned to two books: Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 and W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction In America: 1860-1880. The former, according to Rauch, played a role in the park service’s project.

In 1988, Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, published one of the seminal books on the era, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Twelve years after its release, during the final months of the Clinton administration, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt picked up Foner’s book. Inspired, Babbitt was the first person in his position in government to ask: Why is Reconstruction entirely unheralded by the National Park Service?

At the April symposium in Columbia, Foner, a principal presenter, recounted the story of what happened next: Babbitt called and asked him, “Professor, if there were to be a national park or site or trail commemorating Reconstruction, where should it be?” Without missing a beat, Foner told Babbitt, “Beaufort, South Carolina, the site of the Port Royal Experiment.”

In 1861, representatives of Lincoln’s government who were in control of the Beaufort area, decided to break up some 200 confiscated cotton plantations there and sell them in small parcels at favorable prices to the workers—previously enslaved cotton and domestic hands. From that day to this, those parcels have served the freed owners and their descendants well as small family farms and compounds. Collectively, these and the other good-government efforts to transition former slaves from bondage to freedom in the Beaufort area have come to be known as the Port Royal Experiment.

“Well, I want to go there,” Babbitt told Foner. Three weeks later, with only about six weeks remaining in the Clinton administration, Foner, Babbitt, National Park Service staffers, local historians, and various other luminaries spent three days touring the many notable Reconstruction-era sites in the Beaufort area.

Not much, however, happened. Rauch continues:

Foner and Babbitt’s group saw how much there is to Beaufort’s Reconstruction history. It wasn’t just Smalls’s hometown.

But all that was 16 years ago.

Since then, unlike Natchez, Beaufort and its partners have not so much as erected a plaque commemorating a Reconstruction site. (Although there have been recent efforts in Hilton Head to bring Mitchelville back to public memory.) Instead, Beaufort seems more inclined to erase Reconstruction sites. In 2014, Mayor Billy Keyserling and the Beaufort City Council passed a “Civic Master Plan” that called for “infill housing” and the gentrification of Beaufort’s only Reconstruction-era African American neighborhood.

Three years later we have Charlottesville and no clear sight of where we’re headed.

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