Penn Center

The museum at The Penn Center on St. Helena Island. File

WASHINGTON — Exactly one week before he leaves office, President Barack Obama established the country's first national monument to the Reconstruction era on a swath of Beaufort County.

The monument designation covers historic sites around St. Helena Island — including Penn Center, the South’s first educational institution for former slaves — and was made through an executive order Thursday evening.

At the same time Obama established monuments to the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala., and that recognize the 1960s Freedom Riders in Anniston, Ala. 

"I am designating new national monuments that preserve critical chapters of our country’s history, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement,"  Obama said in a statement. "These stories are part of our shared history."

Penn Center, originally called Penn School, was established in 1862 as the first school in the South for former slaves. It moved to its current campus, now part of the national monument, in 1864, said leading supporter U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., in announcing the effort was successful. 

Another site is Brick Baptist Church, adjacent to Penn Center, which was built in 1855 by slaves who were relegated to its balcony out of the sight and presence of white worshipers. After the Civil War Battle of Port Royal in 1861, slaves assumed control over the church. 

Downtown Beaufort will also be featured in the recognition, Clyburn said, as will the Camp Saxton Site in Port Royal where on Jan. 1, 1863, Union General Rufus Saxton assembled 3,000 slaves from the surrounding Sea Islands to read the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the first reading in the South.

South Carolina lawmakers and conservation activists cheered the news.

"Reconstruction had some of its earliest and most significant impact in Beaufort County, South Carolina," said Clyburn, who was also pursuing a legislative track to create the national monument alongside U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

"For the last two decades, many communities in Beaufort County have worked to recognize and preserve their Reconstruction heritage and to create a unit of the National Park Service linking these historic sites together," Clyburn, the highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress and a former history teacher, continued. "Today’s announcement is a great tribute to their years of work and sacrifice on this endeavor."

The Reconstruction era refers to the period sandwiched between the end of slavery and the rise of Jim Crow, where freed blacks learned to read and write, possessed their own land and ran successfully for public office.

The Beaufort County monument is in and of itself a victory for those who had been pushing for its creation, namely a coalition of local public officials and community leaders bolstered by some major national conservation groups.

The news also comes as a sigh of relief.  Activists for this monument and others felt they were rushing against the clock of the Obama presidency. Many feared  their efforts could be permanently stymied by President-elect Donald Trump, whose environmental and conservation record is still something of a question mark.

Obama has made expanding National Park Service purview over sites of historic and cultural significance a cornerstone of his presidency. He has done so without congressional approval through the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to protect by proclamation “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest." 

While his national monuments dedicated to historical entities have not been so widely criticized, he has drawn ire for those designations that have been geared towards land conservation and protection.

On the campaign trail in Oct. 2016, Trump suggested to voters in Maine he might reverse a land protection executive order which critics there said was interfering with the community's economic vitality.

During a recent visit to Capitol Hill, Vice President-elect Mike Pence fielded complaints from several GOP lawmakers from Western states that their districts were being negatively impacted by new monuments Obama established through the Antiquities Act.

There is a concern among environmental activists that Republicans, already sensitive to appearances of overreach by the executive branch, might try to roll back the Antiquities Act to prevent future monuments from being created without consent of Congress. Worse, Republicans could find ways to pass laws to undermine monuments Obama made possible during his tenure.

"The Republican leadership in Congress is attempting to undermine all the progress we’ve made safeguarding our lands, water and cultural sites by attacking the law used to protect these places," said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski. "LCV will be there every step of the way to defend this critical law that works with local stakeholders to safeguard our most cherished places and boost local economies.”

But on Thursday night, on the eve of the start of a long weekend to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the community was celebrating.

"Today is a proud moment ... I say proud because now the Reconstruction story, our story, will be told and shared nationally and internationally," said Rodell Lawrence, Penn Center executive director. "At a time when our nation and the entire world are about to honor and celebrate the great work of Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe Dr. King would be very proud."

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.