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BEAUFORT -- A history-laden effort to highlight Beaufort County as the national birthplace of the South's Reconstruction era has drawn criticism from a group of Civil War veterans' descendants.'
The Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to stop the effort to federally protect several sites honoring South Carolina's and Beaufort County's prominent historical roles in the post-Civil War period.'
"If the National Park Service wants to honor blacks being free from slavery and blacks getting the right to vote, that's fine," said Michael Givens, first lieutenant of the state division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Just don't do it under the pretenses of Reconstruction."'
A bill shepherded through the U.S. Senate by Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., has set aside $300,000 to complete two studies over three years.'
One study would be a national search designed to identify U.S. sites and resources significant to Reconstruction.'
The second would determine whether Beaufort County sites with strong ties to Reconstruction should be added to the National Park System.'
Second Congressional District Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of Lexington introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House that could be debated when Congress reconvenes next month, if Wilson pushes it.'
Other delegation members are co-sponsors of the bill, but the group has pressured Wilson, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to let the bill die.'
If the House fails to pass the bill, some say, the state would lose a great opportunity.'
If the Beaufort sites become part of the National Park System, they will be advertised in all national parks across the country -- about 380 sites -- which could help the state attract tourists.'
But an educational opportunity exists, too, they say.'
"Nowhere, at no time did I learn anything about our people or our plight," protested Bernie Wright, executive director of St. Helena Island's Penn Center. "I was completely oblivious."'
The Penn Center, the first school in the South for freed slaves, is one of the Beaufort County sites. The others are:'
<li> The Freedmen's Bureau, where ex-slaves first voted.'
<li> Michelville, on Hilton Head Island, established as the first freedmen's village.'
<li> The Old Fort Plantation, where the first ex-slaves gathered to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read.'
<li> The Robert Smalls house and other sites associated with the Reconstruction leader and Civil War hero.'
Givens of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said Reconstruction was a terrible time for Southern whites, who he said were "punished" by Northern whites, or "carpetbaggers," who came South. "The genesis of bad relationships between the races is Reconstruction," rather than slavery, Givens said.'
Some whites never accepted ex-slaves as their equals.'
A cross-section of Beaufort's business, education and governmental leaders have endorsed the Hollings bill, as has the Bush administration's Interior Department. Respected historians also support the project.'
"I think it's neat that all these national folks have looked everywhere in the country to determine where can you best capture Reconstruction, and they choose Beaufort," said Walter Edgar, a noted S.C. historian and author who teaches at USC.'
But, Robert Roper, Sons of Confederate Veterans state division commander, said his group fears the park service's interpretation of Reconstruction would be one-sided, diluting the hardships of Southern Confederates. "We're certainly not against telling history, we just want the full history told," he said.'
Recently, the park service included an explanation at a new exhibit at Fort Sumter, which it operates, saying slavery was the underlying cause of the Civil War. Southern groups maintain the war was fought over "states rights."'
The confederate group wrote Wilson, drafted a resolution against the Reconstruction study and put it on the group's Web site. Reconstruction study supporters countered by also writing Wilson.'
A spokesman in Wilson's Washington office said last week the congressman fully expects his bill to be passed. Wilson has met with constituents on both sides of the issue.'
"What we need very much is for Joe Wilson to push for it to come before the committee," said Page Putnam Miller, a visiting professor at USC. "We need Wilson's support."'
Of the 380 National Park Service sites, half deal with history-based themes. About 30 are connected to Civil War history.'
"No park focuses primarily on Reconstruction, though," Miller said. "The Park Service realizes it has a gap in subject matter related to Reconstruction."'
More than 40 sites in the county have ties to the era, and most have either archaeological or structural significance.'
"I think this is really ridiculous," said Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor who is recognized as the leading authority on Reconstruction.'
"Reconstruction is one of the most misunderstood periods of American history. There was great progress and great failure in many ways. But it was an integral part of our history. A new and up-to-date version of Reconstruction can benefit everyone."