During our trip last week to be with family in South Carolina I got to spend a day in Beaufort/Port Royal, about an hour and a half down the coast from Charleston. It is home to one of the deepest natural harbors on the East Coast and was a strategic base for the Union army which captured the port in 1861 and held it throughout the Civil War. The wealthy confederate planters fled the area, leaving behind their homes, their cotton fields, and the 10-12,000 persons they had enslaved. The Union needed money and men. The formerly enslaved needed a sustainable freedom. Thus began the Port Royal Experiment.
As the war raged, these formerly enslaved folks were paid (low) wages to work the cotton fields of their former owners. The Union benefited from the sale of the cotton, also taking possession of the land and homes since the planters had ceased paying their property taxes. A portion of this land was then offered for sale to the formerly enslaved, who bought it at $1.25/acre. They could have bought more had wealthy speculators from the North not been allowed to swallow up much of the land.
In 1862 the first school for freed slaves was established here, in Beaufort County, led by three women from the north, two White, one Black. It was just a few miles from the school that the Emancipation Proclamation was first read January 1, 1863, declaring that those who had been enslaved in states that were in open rebellion against the United States were now free (assuming the Union gained control of those areas). This made official what the people of Beaufort were already experiencing.
The school came to be called Penn Center (since two of the women were from Pennsylvania), established on land donated by Hasting Gantt, a freedman who had recently purchased the land with the dream of farming. Beyond basic education, the school became a center for training in agricultural, industrial, and homesteading skills. Given the right to vote, the people of Beaufort would go on to elect Gantt to the state legislature. Another son of Beaufort, Robert Smalls, born a slave, eventually bought the home of his former owner, and went on to serve five terms as a US Congressman. His story is fascinating and too long to tell here.
The Port Royal Experiment is a window into what would have been possible had the promises of post-Civil War Reconstruction been pursued. As Reconstruction crumbled in the 1870s, and White terrorism sought to re-instate the pre-war power hierarchy, the Black folks of the Beaufort area were largely spared the worst effects. In the middle of the 20th century, Penn Center was transformed into a hub of Civil Rights activism, with Dr. King and other leaders visiting several times, one of the few places in the South considered safe for Whites and Blacks to plan together. He rehearsed his “I Have a Dream” speech at a local church. The community continues to have a strong Black population who celebrate their Gullah culture.
In 2017, under the Obama Administration, the first National Park dedicated to the Reconstruction Era was dedicated in Beaufort.
I didn’t know a thing about any of this until a couple months ago when I was looking up what else to see around the Charleston area.
All this is not unrelated to our congregational conversation this coming Sunday during the 11:00 hour about our CMC funds for reparations. The discussion will include a presentation from the committee that has been working on this, including questioning whether “reparations” is the right language for this commitment.
And if you’re ever in South Carolina, I highly recommend visiting one of our newest National Parks, in Beaufort.