Local Life: Freedom rings in Beaufort's historic quadrant

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Local Life: Freedom rings in Beaufort's historic quadrant

Published Monday, January 7, 2013   |  623 Words  |  

Why argue for preservation of abandoned and neglected structures in Beaufort's Northwest Quadrant that are obviously beyond repair? Why allow them to stand any longer, blighting the neighborhood and inviting vandalism and vagrancy? What's historic about any one of them that makes them worthy of the financial investment it takes to rescue them?

Those are questions that Historic Beaufort Foundation is frequently asked as we advocate for their preservation in the face of overwhelming structural damage, deterioration and lack of resources.

"Too much rot, mold, termite and water damage," argue those who seek demolition, including owners who for one reason or another -- economic, family dissension or simple neglect -- have not conducted timely maintenance. Yet it's the foundation's role to remind the public of the importance of these structures individually, but also as part of the larger whole of Beaufort's National Historic Landmark District.

In recent days, this newspaper and other media have noted with fanfare what ultimately makes 19th and early 20th century structures in the Northwest Quadrant historic: the proclamation of the emancipation of America's slaves 150 years ago.

As has been pointed out, nowhere was emancipation more dramatic than in Beaufort, where thousands of slaves had gathered from the sea islands after the arrival and occupation by Union troops and the departure of their masters. And nowhere in the United States is there more physical evidence of that turning point in American history than in the Northwest Quadrant, with its modest homes and churches that represented freedom through property ownership for the newly emancipated.

Here in a contiguous group are scores of structures that report to us from the earliest days of freedom and self-sufficiency in the 1870s through the early 20th century, when Beaufort blacks were still masters of their fate prior to Jim Crow laws that once again dictated limits of opportunity.

Just as 304 acres of Williamsburg, Va., in a different time were carved out by a leading 1920s philanthropist and restored to represent a specific era -- the late 18th century -- it could be postulated that these modest homes, stores and churches in the Northwest Quadrant could be restored as a living museum to represent the immediate post-slavery era of freedom.

Although no Thomas Jefferson or George Washington made the area historic, there were plenty of men and women who, often bearing their masters' names, created a neighborhood while adjusting to a new way of life called freedom. Many of their descendants' names are still on deeds.

Although that's the compelling reason we recognize as important to preserving the Northwest Quadrant, the Historic Beaufort Foundation also argues for the importance of its architecture. The entire landmark district has been recognized because of the variety of its architecture ranging from the late 18th to the early 20th century. The Northwest Quadrant represents a third of this architectural heritage with its vernacular cottages, some with Beaufort's traditional T-shape, some with heart pine floors and wood walls underneath ripped linoleum and splintered sheet rock or dated paneling, some with high ceilings lowered with textured panels popular in the mid-20th century, all with welcoming front porches.

We have lost and will continue to lose important pieces of this historic fabric because of uncaring property owners and the economic hardship imposed when a property has been neglected too long, but we can't stop trying. Indeed, the foundation, with its partner, The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, is once again engaged (our third rescue in the Northwest Quadrant) in returning a 130-year-old house to life as a family home. The task is daunting, but it's important to American history.