A Congressional measure advanced last week would give Beaufort County a national park and could eventually bring more visitors to the area.
The U.S. Senate passed a bill Feb. 12 that would make the Reconstruction Era National Monument a national historical park. The bill would also create a national network of sites relevant to Reconstruction, the period during and after the Civil War when formerly enslaved people started schools, owned property and participated in government.
The national park designation would expand the monument to include other local sites and create an avenue for more money for the National Park Service to develop programs and teach visitors about the history. Visitors could be directed here from other national parks.
“It’s a great step for something that was already pretty awesome,” said Robb Wells, president and CEO of the Greater Beaufort-Port Royal Visitors and Convention Bureau.
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The Obama administration created the national monument after the National Park Service spent years surveying sites central to Reconstruction. Penn Center’s Darrah Hall and Brick Church on St. Helena Island, the site of Camp Saxton and the Emancipation Oak in Port Royal and the former firehouse building in downtown Beaufort are part of the initial monument.
The bill opens the possibility of adding the remaining campus of Penn Center and other sites in Beaufort’s National Historic Landmark District to the national park. A national park designation also distinguishes the Beaufort County sites from a physical granite monument, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
The park distinction is important for branding and the bill establishes Beaufort County as the area central to Reconstruction history, he said.
“It just gives us a broader banner to bring others in to work collaboratively with us,” Keyserling said.
Other Beaufort County sites could eventually be included in the network of places relevant to Reconstruction. Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island and Robert Smalls’ former home and burial site in Beaufort are local sites historians and park supporters point to as important to the period.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-SC, sponsored a bill for the Reconstruction national park last year. The proposal became part of a larger federal lands bill, called the Natural Resources Management Act, which now has to pass the House of Representatives.
The measure would also make Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie part of a national park in Charleston.
“It’s kind of a synergy between all of their messaging — one park is to lead to the next experience at the next park, and that park opens up opportunities for you to visit another park,” Wells said. “And it becomes part of the norm to seek out national parks in the area.”