I’m Michael Kleber-Diggs, and I’m a writer and arts educator in St. Paul, Minnesota. To celebrate and honor Black History Month, I’ve partnered with Public Lands to showcase four Black park rangers throughout February. Our conversations consider the history of Black park rangers, how the story of the past experience is presented on the common ground of our country’s public, protected lands, and how each ranger views their role and the opportunities available to them through the National Park Service.
We begin with my conversation with Olivia Williams, a 28-year-old historian and park ranger at Reconstruction Era National Historic Park. In her work, Williams brings her passion for public history forward to talk not only about specific aspects of the Reconstruction Era, but how that history informs this present moment. Williams and I both grew up in homes where time outdoors and time on public lands was a priority, and we continue to enjoy the outdoors today. We talked about why public spaces are important and why it can be difficult for people of color to connect to outdoor spaces through public lands—and how learning history through the parks can help change that.
MICHAEL KLEBER-DIGGS: First, can you tell us about the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park?
OLIVIA WILLIAMS: Sure. We operate three sites in the Beaufort, South Carolina, area. We have our downtown Visitor Center in Beaufort, where we give ranger talks every day that we're open. All of us do something different. All rangers give a different perspective, but it's all rooted in the Reconstruction story. Our period of significance is from 1861 to 1900. So we basically go from the start of the Civil War all the way to the beginnings of Jim Crow. In downtown Beaufort, we talk a lot about Robert Smalls [who freed himself and was elected to the U.S. House], and just how this was a very progressive Black city during Reconstruction.
At Port Royal, our second location, we have the site of Porter’s Chapel. And it sits on the site of Camp Saxton [home to the 1st South Carolina Infantry, later renamed the 33rd United States Colored Troops], which is named for General Rufus Saxton [who recruited the Union army’s first regiments of Black soldiers and later served as a commissioner for the Freedmen's Bureau, resettling freed slaves into the area].
And on St. Helena Island, our third site, we contextualize education and citizenship during Reconstruction, because the 14th Amendment really comes into play a lot and the 15th Amendment too. Brick Baptist Church, which is still there today, actually served as a voting precinct for the community.