Abraham Murray gripped his pulpit at Brick Baptist Church and told those who filled the pews and spilled out the front doors they were on hallowed ground.
In the St. Helena Island church, slaves once worshiped in the balcony out of sight of their owners, and later freed people established the building as the mother church of the island and one of the first schools for former slaves, Murray told them.
On Thursday the site hosted a public meeting about plans to tell the complete story of that transitional era.
U.S. Rep. Jim. Clyburn and National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis heard unanimous support from dozens of public speakers for the establishment of a national monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort County.
“We’re here to listen,” Jarvis said.
The plan would go from Jarvis to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and eventually to the desk of President Barack Obama, who could create the monument with an executive order using the Antiquities Act.
The monument would include Brick Baptist Church, Darrah Hall on the campus of the Penn Center, Camp Saxton and the Emancipation Oak in Port Royal, Robert Smalls’ Beaufort home and an old firehouse in downtown Beaufort owned by Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling that would direct visitors to Reconstruction sites.
Clyburn, Jarvis and a charter bus loaded with other federal and local officials and community leaders toured the five proposed sites for the monument before the meeting.
They saw the site of Camp Saxton and the stand of trees containing the Emancipation Oak on the grounds of Naval Hospital Beaufort in Port Royal. The spot was the only one the bus stopped for the tour to walk.
Historian Page Miller told of how a dug-out cypress garden had created an amphitheater for one of the first readings of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
“The opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and the opportunity to recreate events of that day by utilizing the water and the surrounding properties could create a dramatic experience that brings to life the Reconstruction story,” Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said during a prepared statement during the meeting.
On the bus, Miller pointed out numerous other sites tied to the Reconstruction era, the density a reason historians and the National Park Service targeted the area for a monument.
As the bus squeezed past Smalls’ house on Prince Street, Miller told of Smalls’ rise from former slave to a multi-term congressman who returned to Beaufort and bought the home of his previous owners.
Clyburn later called Smalls “the most consequential South Carolinian who’s ever been.”
Smalls’ great-great-grandson, Michael Boulware Moore, joined what appeared to be at least 200 at Brick Baptist Church, some spilling out the front doors at the beginning of the meeting. Moore received applause when he detailed his lineage after waiting in line with other members of the public and also urged support for the monument.
“I know what the history has meant to me,” he said. “I think this is deeply important. Now is the time.”
Elected officials, leaders of nonprofit organizations, educators and residents who can trace their family’s history on St. Helena Island to the Civil War waited in the aisles of the church for their turn to speak at the podium. Each one supported the creation of the monument.
Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett agreed Beaufort County was the best spot for the monument but asked the assembled officials for their support of Mitchelville, the site the first self-governed freedmen’s community. He said Mitchelville needs more money and more planning.
Clyburn noted that the selected sites were only a window into the area’s history.
“You don’t need to limit the effort to these five sites,” he said. “You start with these five sites. I don’t want anybody to leave here today feeling you’ve been left out.”
Supporters will now wait to see if the proposal reaches Obama’s desk before the end of his term.
“It was a fruitful meeting,” National Park Service official Michael Allen said as he crossed the campus of Penn Center across the road from Brick Baptist Church. “It was a forward progress.”