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Posted on: November 30, 2020

How the Reconstruction Era Park came to Beaufort

Billy in front of homeBEAUFORT, S.C. (Nov. 30, 2020) – The story of Beaufort’s Reconstruction Era National Historical Park is told in fits and starts.

In 2000, then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt hoped to establish a historical park in honor of the Reconstruction period in U.S. history. He was not successful, but the idea lived on. In 2016, South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn and Babbitt, then with the Conservation Lands Foundation, and with the support of renowned Reconstruction era historian Dr. Eric Foner, reached out to Mayor Billy Keyserling, and said the time might be right to revive the effort.

Why was Beaufort the ideal location for such a park? “Beaufort has a unique story, different in a number of ways from other places because by many accounts, Reconstruction started here and likely lasted longer here than anywhere else,” Keyserling writes in his book, “Sharing Common Ground: Promises Unfulfilled but Not Forgotten.” 

The untold story of Reconstruction – the lies and myths that have obscured its true history and Beaufort’s place in it – became the mayor’s cause. The goal, and it had to be done in a few months, was to designate Beaufort-area landmarks as The National Reconstruction Era Monument -- part of the National Park system – before President Obama left office in January of 2017. The mechanism to achieve this would be through the Antiquities Act of 1906, which protects the nation’s cultural and historic resources. 

Keyserling assembled a network including Reconstruction scholars and grassroots activists and rallied Lowcountry communities to the cause. While Rep. Clyburn carried the ball, the Lowcountry’s congressman, Rep. Mark Sanford, was a strong advocate as well.

All property had to be donated to the government since the Park Service had no authority to purchase land under the Antiquities Act. Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island donated an easement on the church and graveyard, Penn Center donated Darrah Hall and space for parking, and Billy and his brother, Paul, donated a building downtown – the former Beaufort firehouse – that now houses the park’s Visitors Center and headquarters. Almost $2 million in private community assets was donated, he said. 

“Appraisals, surveys, environmental studies, and significant legal work were funded by the Public Lands Foundation,” Keyserling said. 

Acting National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis was skeptical that the research, donations, and legal work could be completed in time, but he agreed to hold a public hearing. In December of 2016, an overflow crowd gathered at Brick Baptist Church, where 40 to 50 people spoke in favor of the monument with not one word of opposition. “The church was overflowing with hope,” Keyserling said, “Black, white, young, old. It was an incredible day.”

“Afterwards, Jarvis came up to me. He said, ‘did you script this?’ I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘I have been to so many public hearings, and it struck me, not one person talked about jobs, not one person talked about tourism, not one person talked about the commercial side of a national historic site. Universally, every speaker said they just want to know the truth. I am very moved by how strongly this community is behind this project.’”

Just before he left office, in January 2017, President Obama authorized the monument’s creation. In 2019, largely due to the leadership of Reps. Clyburn and Joe Cunningham, and supported by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott,  the monument was transitioned by Congress into The Reconstruction Era National Historical Park and Network, expanding its growth boundaries in Beaufort and on St. Helena Island. Besides Darrah Hall and Brick Baptist Church, Camp Saxton on the Naval Hospital campus in Port Royal is part of the park. The park will also manage a network of sites across the country that are rich in Reconstruction history.

That achievement – but knowing how much more there was to do to tell the story of Reconstruction -- led Keyserling to establish his nonprofit in 2018 -- Reconstruction Beaufort: The Second Founding of America. In addition to supporting the park, the nonprofit will work to create a network of teachers across the country who can teach Reconstruction history to middle-school students, and use experiential methods, from music to art to performance, to tell the untold stories of the period. 

Covid-19 has halted some of the Reconstruction Beaufort’s momentum, but Keyserling is undeterred, although clear-eyed about the challenges, including funding. 

“The task is to peel back generations of learning an incomplete history,” he said, "while leveraging what’s out there today for a deep examination of who we are, where we came from, and how we can lessen the division our country suffers today.”

(Photo: Mayor Keyserling in front of the historic Stokes Family Cottage, 1313 Congress St. His brother, Paul, took this picture for the cover of Keyserling's new book, "Sharing Common Ground: Promises Unfulfilled But Not Forgotten.)

Related: Mayor Billy embarks on next chapter

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