Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?

The National Park Service wants to tell a more complete story of the Civil War, but some cities are more receptive to that effort than others.

In 2015, Natchez, Mississippi, rewrote its annual historic tableaux performance to include scenes with African Americans and to diminish glorification of the Old South. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)

A dozen years after first being rebuffed in South Carolina, the National Park Service is poised to make another run at designating trails, historic sites, and perhaps a park or two in commemoration of one of U.S. history’s most controversial periods: Reconstruction in the former Confederacy.

After nearly a century of building feel-good “guns and drums” parks, only in recent years has the National Park Service begun to take on some of the nation’s more inglorious and controversial moments. Recently designated is the site of the World War II-era Manzanar internment facility in the California desert, where more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans were detained. And there’s the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado—where 650 cavalrymen under the command of a U.S. Army colonel slaughtered more than 100 members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, mostly women and children—which has also been designated.

Next up on the list: Reconstruction, a time deeply infused with the legacy of racial prejudice, civil- and voting-rights violations, and power politics. The effort is timely. On its sesquicentennial, for example, Memphis, Tennessee, recently memorialized an 1866 massacre in which, following the rumor of a freedman’s insurrection, 48 people were murdered and hundreds more badly beaten or raped by rampaging white mobs over a 36-hour period. Horrors like that are why the National Park Service has called the aftermath of the Civil War “one of the most complicated, poorly understood, and significant periods in American history.” Millions of former slaves found liberation, but they had to create a new community for themselves inside a very fragile nation—one in which many residents of the former Confederacy found the new realities of abolition and military defeat repugnant. Citing Reconstruction scholarship as “slow to enter public consciousness,” this year the National Park Service published a handbook for rangers and historians to ensure that “discredited legends” (like neo-Confederate claims that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery) don’t “stand in place of historical fact.”

The National Park Service has also commissioned a study to explore creating official commemorative sites—and two places that are likely high on the list are Beaufort, South Carolina, and Natchez, Mississippi. That study is currently in its “final review” phase within the agency and is expected to come out in the next few months, probably right after the November elections. Reflecting the most recent historiographical thinking on Reconstruction, the long-awaited study will no doubt also emphasize the controversial era’s role as the essential precursor of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s.

In April, the nonprofit Historic Columbia and the University of South Carolina History Center sponsored a symposium in Columbia, South Carolina: “The Reconstruction Era: History and Public Memory.” The event featured Michael Allen, the Park Service’s community-partnership specialist for Reconstruction (also the longtime education specialist at the Fort Sumter National Monument and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site); as well as two of the historians the National Park Service retained to recommend Reconstruction-era historic sites, Northwestern University’s Kate Masur and the University of California at Davis’s Gregory Downs, who together co-edited The World the Civil War Made and who have both contributed to The Atlantic on the topic. At the symposium, the potential sites at Beaufort and Natchez dominated the discussion. The stakes are high for both cities because the exposure they could derive from a national park, designated sites, or trails readily translates into revenue for area restaurants and hotels, which in turn translates into tax revenue for the host cities.

But this is a tale of two cities, and the Reconstruction commemoration road ahead looks considerably smoother in Natchez, where the voters just elected their third African American mayor, Darryl Grennell (the first was Robert Wood in 1869; the second was Philip West in 2004). In Beaufort, on the other hand, the city council is all white and has been for two decades. Yet it is likely that the historians’ study will show that Beaufort’s Reconstruction provenance is by most measures far stronger than Natchez’s, or indeed than of any other potential site. But in Beaufort, historic designations for Reconstruction are already steeped in controversy and political challenges.


In the heart of Beaufort’s spectacular 304-acre historic district is the “Henry McKee House.” This gracious two-story residence with the slave “cottage” still out back is where Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was born into slavery (under McKee, whom historians also believe was probably Smalls’s father) and where, after the Civil War, Smalls returned—to purchase McKee’s house and cottage at a tax sale. During the early stages of the war, Smalls had been among a group of abolitionists who met with Abraham Lincoln to persuade the president to allow African Americans to fight as full-fledged members of the U.S. Army and Navy.

The slave cottage behind McKee’s estate, where Smalls was born. (Bill Rauch / The Atlantic)

Smalls himself became a Union war hero. And after the war, Smalls continued to advocate for blacks in the military. Back in Beaufort, he also founded a school, a church, and a newspaper for the black community. Perhaps more significantly, Smalls represented Beaufort in the South Carolina State Legislature for five years, in the South Carolina State Senate for four years, and then in the U.S. House of Representatives for seven years. A modest National Historic Landmark plaque is affixed to the wall outside of Smalls’s house, but it says nothing about why the house is historic or who Smalls was—nothing about the slave who fought for emancipation, returned home to buy his former master’s house, and then became the region’s most extraordinary figure.

An article in Harper’s Weekly chronicles Smalls’s heroics while captain of a Union ship with an all-black crew.  (Bruce Smith / AP)

In 1993, U.S. Representative James Clyburn became South Carolina’s first African American member of the House since Reconstruction. The previous African American to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Congress was Smalls, who left the post in 1887. Clyburn, who has been virtually alone among South Carolina’s elected officials in carrying the Reconstruction torch, was the keynote speaker at the symposium in Columbia, where he recalled Smalls’s then-groundbreaking congressional proposals for free public education and government support for the disabled and elderly. Clyburn also referred to Smalls as “the most consequential figure in the Reconstruction era.” Smalls’s life would seem to justify the claim.

But another congressman, U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, famously swept the public memory of the Smalls House and the rest of the proposed Beaufort Reconstruction History Park (as it was called then) under the rug in 2004. Wilson is most widely known for being rebuked by the House of Representatives after shouting, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress. According to Allen, when Wilson was asked in 2004 for his blessing for the then-proposed Beaufort Reconstruction History Park, Wilson quietly told the National Park Service’s higher-ups, “Not this, not here, not now.”

At the symposium, Allen also recounted that Wilson initially favored the trail. But then, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group dedicated to the “history and legacy” of the “Southern Cause,” denounced the era as one that “victimized many South Carolinians.” Furthermore, the Sons of Confederate Veterans—nearly 100,000 strong—targeted the congressman with a letter-writing campaign, and, after meeting with the group, Wilson switched his position. Michael Givens, the commander-in-chief emeritus of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, recently told me about the 2004 dust-up from his home in Charleston. “There’s a lot of history there,” he said. “But if the Park Service was just going to serve up the politically correct version, we were against it.” As the district’s representative, Wilson was able to single-handedly kill the proposal. “How can you tell the story of Reconstruction and not tell how the United States Congress illegally passed the 14th Amendment that was designed to punish the South?” said Givens. “And the Park Service was not willing to tell that part.”

Confederate flags line the graves of Southern Civil
War soldiers on Confederate Memorial day.
(Bruce Smith / AP)

Less than a year after Wilson quashed the Beaufort Reconstruction commemorations that he once supported, the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected their own historic marker. A few blocks from the Robert Smalls House, also in the bosom of Beaufort’s historic district, sits an imposing residence, the “Maxcy-Rhett House,” also known as “Secession House.” This was where, in 1860, parts of South Carolina’s first-in-the-nation Articles of Secession were drawn up by U.S. Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett and the other leaders of the slave-holding group that many historians have labeled the “Fire-Eaters.” The highly visible two-sided historical marker that stands in front of Secession House at the head of Beaufort’s Craven Street praises Rhett’s “Southern nationalism” and was placed there in 2005 by General Richard H. Anderson’s Company No. 47 of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. In a state that cancels school on Confederate Memorial Day and that held a stadium-sized ball in 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its secession from the union—complete with hoop skirts and rebel yells—those who carry that particular flame still abound and are active in South Carolina.

Wilson is still in Congress, but after redistricting in 2010, he no longer represents the 13,000 people living in Beaufort. That honor now goes to former Governor Mark Sanford, who didn’t return emails soliciting his views on how he might react to a National Park Service Reconstruction park or trail in his district.


For its part, the ducks are already neatly lined up in Natchez, a city with a similar population to Beaufort at about 16,000 and its own impressive collection of imposing antebellum mansions. The nonprofit-sector partners in Natchez share a commitment to refreshing the public’s memory on Reconstruction, and they have been pursuing the effort for some time. In 2003, for example, the National Park Service; the Community Alliance, a nonprofit coalition comprising the Historic Natchez Foundation and the city of Natchez; as well as a host committee of private individuals got together and, over the next decade, placed 80 signs around the city and created several downtown walking trails that celebrate all aspects of Natchez’s history, including Reconstruction. In total, Natchez spent nearly $1 million on the effort. In fact, it’s likely that any trail the National Park Service might propose has already been largely blazed by the Natchez Community Alliance.

Hiram Rhodes Revels’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, for one, is marked. Appointed by the Mississippi State Legislature to fill an unexpired term in 1870, Revels was the nation’s first U.S. senator of African American descent. The senator was also the pastor of his church, which was a central meeting place for freedmen who organized and asserted their new political power in the years after the Civil War. That tradition continues. Mayor Grennell, who was elected in a landslide in June, is a member of the church.

Also marked and celebrated is the famous Forks in the Road slave auction house—on the Natchez Trace just outside of the old Natchez city limits—where slaves were sold until 1863, when the slave pens there were famously torn down by the 58th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry.

Forming the bridge between these two Reconstruction landmarks is the St. Catherine Street Corridor, a near-mile-long stretch that includes dozens of sites of seminal historic significance to Natchez, to African Americans, and indeed to the nation. There’s the ACE (All Colored Entertainment) Theatre; the national-landmark home of Emile Angeletti, a prominent late-19th-century African American contractor; and the home of Dr. John Banks, Natchez’s first African American physician and Booker T. Washington’s host when he visited Natchez.

In the last decade, the Natchez Community Alliance has marked all of these places and more with Natchez Trail commemorative plaques. Moreover, the Natchez National Historical Park is “reinterpreting” its older sites with a greater emphasis on the Reconstruction period. “Here in Natchez, we’re all about inclusion and telling the whole multicultural and multiethnic story,” Grennell told me recently. “The 32 panels the Community Alliance has placed along the St. Catherine Street Corridor reflects that approach.”


Back in Beaufort—where Robert Smalls’s house has little recognition, let alone the home of a prominent contractor, and where secessionist history is honored—that’s not the approach. There have been no local tangible efforts to memorialize the still-controversial era during which the town and its surrounding area led the nation. That is not new. The reluctance dates back to well before the conception of the National Park Service’s Reconstruction initiative. In 1988, Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, published one of the seminal books on the era, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Twelve years after its release, during the final months of the Clinton administration, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt picked up Foner’s book. Inspired, Babbitt was the first person in his position in government to ask: Why is Reconstruction entirely unheralded by the National Park Service?

At the April symposium in Columbia, Foner, a principal presenter, recounted the story of what happened next: Babbitt called and asked him, “Professor, if there were to be a national park or site or trail commemorating Reconstruction, where should it be?” Without missing a beat, Foner told Babbitt, “Beaufort, South Carolina, the site of the Port Royal Experiment.”

In 1861, representatives of Lincoln’s government who were in control of the Beaufort area, decided to break up some 200 confiscated cotton plantations there and sell them in small parcels at favorable prices to the workers—previously enslaved cotton and domestic hands. From that day to this, those parcels have served the freed owners and their descendants well as small family farms and compounds. Collectively, these and the other good-government efforts to transition former slaves from bondage to freedom in the Beaufort area have come to be known as the Port Royal Experiment.

“Well, I want to go there,” Babbitt told Foner. Three weeks later, with only about six weeks remaining in the Clinton administration, Foner, Babbitt, National Park Service staffers, local historians, and various other luminaries spent three days touring the many notable Reconstruction-era sites in the Beaufort area.

They saw Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, where during the war, former slaves set up the first self-governing and self-taxing freedmen’s village in the United States. They saw the old Beaufort College building on Carteret Street, which was used during the Civil War as a school for black children and as a hospital for former slaves (Union Hospital No. 10), and after the war as a Freedman’s Bureau headquarters. And they saw the Penn School on St. Helena Island, a 16-building campus nestled among trailing Spanish moss and ancient oak trees, where “contraband of war”—or freed slaves—were provided the education they were previously explicitly denied.

One of the buildings at Penn Center on St. Helena Island

In fact, among the most compelling contributors to Beaufort County’s Reconstruction provenance is that it is the home of the only extant buildings in the United States where freedmen were taught to read and write during the Civil War. (Now known as Penn Center, Clyburn sponsored a bill last May to make Penn a national monument; it has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands.) In other words, Foner and Babbitt’s group saw how much there is to Beaufort’s Reconstruction history. It wasn’t just Smalls’s hometown.

But all that was 16 years ago.

Since then, unlike Natchez, Beaufort and its partners have not so much as erected a plaque commemorating a Reconstruction site. (Although there have been recent efforts in Hilton Head to bring Mitchelville back to public memory.) Instead, Beaufort seems more inclined to erase Reconstruction sites. In 2014, Mayor Billy Keyserling and the Beaufort City Council passed a “Civic Master Plan” that called for “infill housing” and the gentrification of Beaufort’s only Reconstruction-era African American neighborhood.

In 2010, Jeff Antley, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Charleston, told The New York Times: “If the park service is talking about opening a site to celebrate Reconstruction, we’re going to have a hard time with that. What was done to the South was horrible.” But maybe things have changed in the last six years. At the April symposium, Allen told the crowd that he had spoken to representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and at that time, they had no opposition to a reprised Reconstruction project.

But not every member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sounds unopposed: After 150 years, at least in parts of South Carolina, the perceived wound is still raw—from the war, from Reconstruction, and from Washington’s hard-fisted efforts to impose federal solutions on localities. “If there’s one lesson that stands up like Mount Rushmore in the history books, it’s when governments write history they write it to make themselves look good. All I’m saying is this country should be better than that,” Givens told me recently, hinting at the dimensions of the fight to come. “Here in the USA, we shouldn’t be afraid to tell the whole truth, and that includes at the National Park Service.”