Reconstruction – the period after the end of the Civil War – remains one of the most misunderstood times in US and Southern history. Starting in 1865 and continuing for about 12 years, the country wrestled with questions of reconciliation, benefits of citizenship, the role of the federal government, and how to rebuild an economic and social system with about 4 million newly freed slaves.
Central to the story is the experience of African-Americans, who were considered citizens after the war for the first time in the South’s history. Some sites in South Carolina offer a glimpse into the days of Reconstruction, including a historic house museum in downtown Columbia that is the only museum in the country devoted to Reconstruction.
Woodrow Wilson Family Home: A Museum of Reconstruction in Columbia and Richland Count- 1705 Hampton St., Columbia
South Carolina's only presidential site, the circa-1871 Italian villa-style residence was home to a 14-year-old boy named "Tommy" Woodrow Wilson. The house reopened in February 2014 after an extensive rehabilitation. As part of that renovation, Historic Columbia worked to tell the story of Columbia in the 1870s, exploring how the city’s 9,000 residents – black and white – navigated the changes of Reconstruction. It is the only museum in the country devoted solely to the Reconstruction era. The house museum shows the Wilson family in the context of what was going on in Columbia during the years after the Civil War.
What’s there: Panel exhibits, interactive technologies and guided tours show visitors about a time when African-Americans in the South first were able to participate in government, start churches and go to school. Exhibits include the social and political implications of domestic service, family life and activities by both middle class whites and blacks, and the role of religion in black and white communities.
Visit: The house museum is open for tours Tuesday – Saturday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tour admission can be purchased at the Gift Shop at Robert Mills, 1616 Blanding St.
Mitchelville Freedom Park- 229 Beach City Road, Hilton Head Island
The remains of Mitchelville, the first self-governing community of freed slaves in the nation, can be found along the South Carolina coast at Hilton Head Island. Founded in 1862, the citizens of Mitchelville laid out streets, elected leaders and provided education for all children. The town was named in honor of its designer, Union Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel.
What’s there: Today, the Mitchelville Preservation Project Inc. is a nonprofit working to replicate, preserve and sustain a historically significant site and educate the public about the freedmen of Mitchelville. The Mitchelville Freedom Park is located in Fish Haul Creek Park in Hilton Head.
Don’t miss: The “Bench by the Road” installed by the Toni Morrison Society. There’s also a steel likeness of Harriet Tubman, who traveled to see the town, on the grounds of nearby Fort Howell on Beach City Road.
Also: Gullah Heritage Trail tours and custom group tours of Mitchelville and the Lowcountry are available.
The Robert Smalls House- 511 Prince St., Beaufort
Robert Smalls was one of the most significant South Carolinians during Reconstruction. He was born a slave in 1839, and when the Civil War started, Smalls worked for the Confederacy as a pilot of the CSS Planter. In May 1862, Smalls and other African-American crew members commandeered the heavily armed Confederate ship, sailed it into open seas and delivered it to the Union. He also delivered the 17 passengers from slavery to freedom. He became a second lieutenant and ship commander in the Union navy.
During Reconstruction, Smalls returned to Beaufort and became a major political figure, serving in the SC House of Representatives (1868-1970), the SC Senate (1870-1875), and four terms in the US House of Representatives between 1874 and 1886. He was the first African-American to represent South Carolina in Congress.
The house: In 1863, Smalls purchased the Beaufort house at 411 Prince St. that was the home of his former owner. Smalls’ mother had worked in the house, and Robert Smalls was born behind it. Smalls and his descendants lived in the house for about 90 years. In 1974 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark for its association with Robert Smalls. The fully restored home is a private residence located on the Old Point near downtown Beaufort.
Of note: “Fragments of the Ark,” a young adult historical novel based on the life of Robert Smalls, was recently reprinted by USC Press’ Young Palmetto Books.
University of South Carolina Horseshoe- Columbia
The University of South Carolina in the capital of Columbia was founded in 1801. In the years after the Civil War, a new state constitution was passed requiring that universities be “free and open to all the children and youths of the State, without regard to race and color.” In 1873, the University of South Carolina became the only state-supported Southern university to fully integrate during Reconstruction. By 1876, the student body was predominately African-American.
The Horseshoe: Classes at the university during Reconstruction took place on the historic Horseshoe, which stands today as the heart of campus.
The first teacher: Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard College, became the first black faculty member, teaching mental and moral philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He and his family lived at the foot of the Horseshoe in the Leiber House, which now houses the university’s admissions office. He also later served as the university's librarian, working at South Caroliniana Library – the nation’s oldest free-standing academic library.
Greener also earned a degree from the university's law school in 1876. Carolina recently acquired Greener’s law diploma and his license to practice law in South Carolina after it was discovered in an abandoned Chicago home scheduled for demolition. It is the only diploma the university has been able to locate from the African-American students who attended and graduated during Reconstruction. Greener’s USC diploma and law license will be housed in the South Caroliniana Library when renovation of the building is complete.
Visit: The USC Horseshoe entrance is on Sumter Street between Greene and Pendleton streets. It is open to anyone for walking and jogging.
The Arsenal- 713 Craven St., Beaufort
Built as a fortress on the original city square in 1798 and rebuilt in 1852, the Arsenal housed weapons for the Carolina state militia, the Confederacy, the Union, the black militia during Reconstruction, and the late 19th-century Democrats, who reclaimed power from Republicans in the 1870s.
What’s there: The Arsenal now houses the Beaufort History Museum, with exhibits highlighting the area’s full history, including Reconstruction.
Upcoming: On June 10, an exhibit, “Reconstruction Beaufort: Islands of Hope in a Sea of Distress,” will open at the Arsenal. This exhibit will explain the reasons education, politics, industry and agriculture thrived in the area during Reconstruction.
Visit: The Beaufort History Museum is open 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.