S.C. Reconstruction landmarks to shed light on ‘often misunderstood’ period

This vintage photograph shows some of the houses in Mitchelville.

The National Park Service has begun chronicling historic sites in South Carolina that tell the story of Reconstruction.

The work here is part of a larger National Historic Landmark theme study designed to identify buildings and sites related to the 19th century period in which 4 million newly freed blacks built schools and communities while white Southerners grappled with losing a war and life without slaves.

The Reconstruction era began in 1861, when the federal government first dealt with former slaves after Union forces arrived in Port Royal Sound, and ended in 1898, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s law requiring voters there to pass a reading test. Some date the end of the period to 1877, when a compromise caused federal troops to withdraw from the South.

National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis called the Reconstruction Era an “often-ignored or misunderstood period in our rich history” but one that bridges the nation’s Civil War and its civil rights movement.

Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Parks Service in Charleston, will be working with groups and communities interested in taking part.

He was with a Park Service contingent who spent the weekend in Beaufort County touring the Penn Center, Robert Smalls’ home, the Beaufort Arsenal Museum, Emancipation Oak and the Harriet Tubman Bridge over the Combahee River on U.S. Highway 17.

Many consider the Beaufort and Hilton Head Island areas the richest part of this history in the state. Union forces captured this area early during the Civil War and its subsequent policies are considered a “dress rehearsal for reconstruction,” Allen said.

But there are several Charleston-area sites that also stem from that period such as the neighborhoods of Snowden, Liberty Hill and Maryville, as well as the town of Lincolnville.

“We may pass these places every day and not know the depth of them,” Allen said.

Also, the study will look at sites such as McLeod Plantation, a new county historic park on James Island, which has a few centuries of history but also played a prominent role in Reconstruction, when it served as a Freedman’s Bureau.

The theme study will help not only identify Reconstruction sites but also help to preserve them by placing many in a larger historic context.

While there are tens of thousands of sites on the National Register of Historic Places, only about 2,500 of them are National Historic Landmarks, the highest designation reflecting an outstanding aspect of the nation’s history and culture.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.