This image illustrates one of the many ways in which tourism has come to play a major role in the economy of Beaufort, SC. It tells a great deal in a short space about the picturesque, preserved antebellum homes and the lovely, improbably enduring Spanish moss of this coastal community that so many came to love over the years (including a longtime resident, the late novelist Pat Conroy).
I confess to falling under its spell myself when I visited the town on a longer vacation to Hilton Head back in November 2014 (so much so that I took a ton of photos, such as this one).
The guides tended to dwell more on the period before and during the Civil War—understandable, in one sense, as the homes are a compelling argument for historic preservation (even being featured in films such as The Big Chill), and the story of these buildings were told primarily by wealthy white slaveowners. But from now on, I think more people—and more effort on the part of the community—will focus on a later period that has not received as much attention: Reconstruction.
This was brought to my attention forcefully toward as I listened on C-Span to a panel discussion hosted by the American Historical Association (AHA), “Commemorating the Reconstruction Era.” The panelists mentioned how, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the President had designated Beaufort the first National Park Service site dedicated to Reconstruction.
This period of American history was long mischaracterized as an era of vengeful Northern carpetbaggers and their self-interested collaborators, corrupt Southern scalawags, who initiated a period of debasement of the defeated South. Over the last 60 years or so, with the onset of the Civil Rights movement, that stereotype is now the subject of necessary revisionism.
Beaufort is an excellent place to start with educating people about what really went on: a thwarted but heroic effort to extend the full rights of American citizens to former slaves. Taken over by the Union Army in 1861, Beaufort and its environs became a kind of laboratory for a Second American Revolution, where African-Americans could vote, buy property and create institutions such as churches and schools that would build their community.
One of the AHA panelists, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and Columbia University historian Eric Foner, began to press for the NPS designation for Beaufort more than a decade and a half ago. The campaign had to overcome stiff opposition from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others before Barack Obama created the monument through the Antiquities Act.
The Web site for Beaufort prominently mentions a few key points of interest related to this much-misunderstood period of American history: Penn Center, site of the first academic school for freed slaves; and Tabernacle Baptist Church, the burial ground for Robert Smalls, a slave who, in 1863, pulled off a daring capture of a Confederate steam ship before turning it over to Union forces, and, in the postwar period, served in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.