Public shows support for Reconstruction monument
Built by the hands of slaves, Brick Baptist Church overflowed with people of different races and religions who had the same mission: to support the designation of sites in Beaufort County as national monuments to the Reconstruction era.
A visit Thursday by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis marked a historic moment for those who are familiar with the area’s role in the period that moved people from slavery to freedom.
“I was never taught anything good about this part of history called the Reconstruction era,” said the Rev. Abraham Murray, pastor at the church, which served freed slaves and continues to be a place of worship for many on St. Helena Island.
“And I never heard about the Brick Baptist Church until 16 years ago when they were in search of a pastor. But this is a story worth knowing and a story worth sharing. History belongs to everyone and this will ensure that it is a part of history that will not be lost for generations to come.”
The tour, part of the process of becoming a federally recognized national monument, allowed Jarvis to hear directly from locals why the Beaufort County sites are important to American history.
Stopping first at Naval Hospital Beaufort in Port Royal, Jarvis joined Mayor Sam Murray and others in walking the grounds where many gathered to hear the first reading in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
“If we receive this designation, this is where we can recreate that day and bring to life the Reconstruction era,” Murray said.
A historical marker on the hospital grounds marks Camp Saxton, where the first black Union troops were trained during the Civil War.
“While it might not be a building, it is sacred because of what we know happened here,” historian Page Miller said. “These are truly sacred grounds.”
Other sites under consideration for the monument are the Penn Center’s Darrah Hall, built in 1903, which served as a gymnasium for children at the school, and the Robert Smalls house at the corner of Prince and New streets in Beaufort.
Though only five specific sites are being considered for recognition, more than 100 around the county have been identified as crucial to telling the story of Reconstruction.
The most important part of Jarvis’ and Clyburn’s visit was to hear from the public why President Barack Obama, under the Antiquities Act, should make the sites a national monument. Hundreds showed up to voice their support.
“This is a historic day. We can begin to uncrack the lock on history that has so many blank pages,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
Jarvis said the next step is to collect the community’s input and document information about each site to make a recommendation to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who will decide whether to present it to the president.
“Beaufort is a beautiful place with many natural resources, but also this incredible story that can be told through different places that still hold the authenticity of the Reconstruction era,” Jarvis said.
Clyburn said it is important for people to understand their past and the contributions that were made to make the country what it is today.
“This designation is necessary to learn and grow from it,” Clyburn said. “So much of this era is just not well-known. It is necessary to educate people so that they learn to respect the contributions given.
“We are in threat of repeating history if we don’t learn from it.”