Although Americans are already looking ahead to the next presidential administration, President Obama retains the power to shape his legacy and our nation in his remaining weeks in office. He has already used his final months to create several national monuments, and we urge him to create another, one that will speak as much to the nation’s present and future as it does to its past: the first national monument dedicated to Reconstruction — the turbulent, misunderstood era after the Civil War — in Beaufort, S.C., which has one of the country’s highest concentrations of Reconstruction-related sites.
Work on the monument is already underway. Community leaders in Beaufort have submitted a formal request to the National Park Service for a monument that encompasses key sites of emancipation and postwar community-building. In May, two South Carolina representatives — James Clyburn, a Democrat, and Mark Sanford, a Republican — sponsored a resolution to establish a national monument to the Reconstruction era. And last month, a group of 17 historians who have been helping the National Park Service study Reconstruction, as well as the American Historical Association and other professional historical groups, endorsed this effort.
This is a crucial time to commemorate Reconstruction. The period after the Civil War created the modern United States: Three constitutional amendments ended slavery, created equal legal protection and birthright citizenship, and prohibited racial discrimination in voting laws. Four million formerly enslaved Americans reconstructed their families and communities, establishing thousands of churches and schools and civic organizations.
Reconstruction was the nation’s first great experiment in biracial democracy, with hundreds of thousands of black men able to vote for the first time, and significant numbers holding elective office. Largely for that reason, Southern planters led coups against local governments that supported Reconstruction, and went on to bar blacks and many poor whites from voting and to construct a system of Jim Crow racial exclusion.
The story of Reconstruction remains a rich and troubling one for a nation that prefers stories of progress over those of regression. It reminds us of the centrality of race-based slavery to our nation’s history; of the idealism of those, white and black, who sought to build a society based on racial equality upon the ashes of slavery; and of the violent overthrow of the experiment in biracial democracy. More broadly it reminds us that rights we sometimes take for granted can be taken away.
Nevertheless, Reconstruction often disappears from our national story. Historians long characterized it as a failure, disseminating myths of corruption or of African-American incapacity. Over the last half-century, scholars have overturned that interpretation, noting the extraordinary vitality and promise of Reconstruction, but this knowledge has too infrequently reached the public. Many Americans know nothing at all about the period.
A National Park Service monument to Reconstruction in Beaufort would be a significant step toward commemorating this crucial part of the nation’s history. After the Union victory on Port Royal Sound in 1861, the scenic town of Beaufort and the surrounding Sea Islands was a rehearsal for Reconstruction. Former slaves on nearby St. Helena and Hilton Head Islands attended the Penn School established by Northern reformers, established religious services at Brick Baptist Church, created self-governing communities like Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island and served alongside Harriet Tubman in the nearby Combahee ferry raid, an 1863 foray into Confederate territory that liberated hundreds of slaves.
In alliance with some white Carolinians, they elected a war hero and former slave, Robert Smalls, to the state constitutional convention of 1868 and then to five terms in Congress. Smalls lived long enough to see the end of Reconstruction, defending civil and voting rights at the 1895 state constitutional convention that disfranchised African-Americans, and maintaining a rare biracial alliance in Beaufort until his death in 1915.
Traces of this history remain around Beaufort. From the Penn Center at the old Penn School to the Brick Baptist Church to Smalls’s own home, visitors to the Reconstruction national monument would be able to stand where these historical actors stood and reckon with the legacy of their struggle for genuine freedom. A recent National Historic Landmark study found that Beaufort has the greatest density of important historical sites for Reconstruction in the country.
Without the changes of Reconstruction, Barack Obama could not have been elected president. And now the choice is his — under the Antiquities Act, he has the power to create a monument on sites designated by local officials. By acting upon this request from Beaufort, President Obama can bequeath to the nation a site where Americans can contemplate how the Civil War and the destruction of slavery changed the nation — and the long struggle for equal rights that followed.
Gregory P. Downs is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Davis; Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia; and Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern.