Beaufort County now has a national park, allowing more area sites to be recognized for significance during the Reconstruction Era and driving visitors from throughout the country.
The Reconstruction Era National Historical Park was created as part of a sweeping public lands bill signed by President Donald Trump on Tuesday. The bill redefines a Beaufort County national monument created in 2017 that includes Darrah Hall and Brick Church on St Helena Island, a former firehouse building in downtown Beaufort, and Camp Saxton and the Emancipation Oak on the site of Naval Hospital Beaufort in Port Royal.
The distinction means more national name recognition for the area, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. At the same time, separate initiatives like Reconstruction Beaufort are seeking grants to develop school educational programs, exhibits and mobile applications to teach Reconstruction history.
“It’s more than a park,” Keyserling said.
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The park designation will allow more local sites on St. Helena and downtown Beaufort to be included, including the full campus of Penn Center.
The bill also establishes a Reconstruction Era network that would allow nearby sites like Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island to fall under the National Park Service umbrella without being part of the actual national park.
“There is so much history that’s here in Beaufort, and a lot of it that we have not touched on yet,” said Victoria Smalls, a former staff member at Penn Center and the International African American Museum now working with Reconstruction Beaufort. “And I just can’t wait for us to be able to delve into other historic sites of significance to be added.”
The park now has a permanent superintendent, Scott Teoderski, and volunteers are able to lead limited tours of the sites. Some repairs are needed to the park buildings, and park service officials are still working on how best to interpret and access the sites before they are more widely reachable by the public.
Visitors to the Park Service website are directed to Beaufort History Museum — across the street from the firehouse on Craven Street — and to Penn Center to learn more while the sites are being developed.
Beaufort County was deemed by National Park Service officials and historians to be the place most critical in understanding the period during and after the Civil War when newly freed African Americans transformed the social, political and economic landscape.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC, sponsored a bill designating the Reconstruction national park last year. The proposal became part of a larger federal lands bill, called the Natural Resources Management Act.
The measure would also made Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie part of a national park in Charleston.