- Reconstructing MemoryThe Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina, the National Park Service’s First Reconstruction Unit
A phone call in 2000 from Bruce Babbitt, then secretary of the interior, to Eric Foner, the nation’s foremost scholar of Reconstruction, planted the seed for a National Park Service (NPS) site in Beaufort, South Carolina, to preserve and interpret the period following the Civil War. Despite strong local backing and a well-organized strategy to support legislation calling for a study to consider establishing the first unit of the NPS devoted primarily to Reconstruction, the effort floundered. This was partly due to the enormous bureaucratic hurdles involved in the creation of a new unit of the NPS, but the primary issue was deep-seated and unresolved attitudes toward race, slavery, and historical memory that manifested themselves through a Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) campaign that proved difficult to overcome when combined with the great gap between the public’s understanding of Reconstruction and that of the scholarly community. The historical profession, with its focus on scholarly writing, has yet to bridge this divide or adequately explain the craft of history, which always involves exploring new source material to present a more complete and accurate understanding of the past.
In the twenty-first century, the NPS has lagged far behind historical scholarship in recognizing the significance of Reconstruction in American history. As head of the federal agency with responsibility for the NPS, Babbitt was keenly aware that there were many historic sites within the NPS and throughout the nation that focus on the Civil War but no major sites devoted primarily to the preservation and interpretation of the Reconstruction Era.1 Since 1936, the NPS has been using various versions of a thematic framework to illustrate the broad scope of the American experience and aids in identifying gaps in its presentation of American history.2 The absence of a Reconstruction site was a glaring gap. Babbitt read Eric Foner’s groundbreaking 1988 work Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, which provided fresh insights into a complex and turbulent period. He subsequently telephoned Foner to ask advice about [End Page 39] where the NPS might establish a new unit to interpret Reconstruction, if it were possible to do so. After some contemplation and research, Foner suggested the Sea Islands of South Carolina.3 It was not surprising that Foner’s answer was in Beaufort County. C. Vann Woodward, one of the great scholars of American history, wrote that Reconstruction in the Sea Islands “offers a rare opportunity to review the vast spectacle in miniature and see it in its germinal phase.” In this place, the first formerly enslaved troops saw combat, the first public schools tackled illiteracy, and the community experimented with the wage system, testing it with strikes and bargaining. In addition, freedmen purchased abandoned and confiscated land and participated in politics. Woodward encouraged Willie Lee Rose to undertake the seminal book Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment, which explored in depth all the major themes and players and what Woodward described as “the nuances of change by which a slave became a free man.”4 With the identification of a location rich in Reconstruction history, Babbitt took the next step and invited Foner to accompany him to Beaufort, South Carolina.5
Babbitt and Foner’s December 2000 visit was an important spark in igniting a plan to establish a new unit of the NPS to interpret Reconstruction, but it also illuminated significant challenges that lay ahead. Babbitt could not commit long-term support toward the creation of a new historic site: when he came to Beaufort, about six weeks remained in President Bill Clinton’s term. Yet, Babbitt wanted to do what he could to advance the case for the NPS to become involved in the interpretation of Reconstruction before he left office. On December 7, accompanied by NPS staff and two dozen local historians and leaders, Babbitt and Foner toured the key places in Beaufort County associated with Reconstruction. The group, which represented a diverse coalition of county organizations, ate lunch and discussed possible next steps at Penn Center Historic District...