Historian and park ranger Olivia Williams, at the Penn Center, a South Carolina educational landmark of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park’s St. Helena Island site. Photo: Robert Zaleski

There’s a History Lesson in All Public Lands

Part I: Historian and Park Ranger Olivia Williams

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.

The legendary Union Civil War hero Robert Smalls, who was born a slave and became a U.S. Congressman. Photo: Library of Congress

What is your specific role at Reconstruction Era National Historic Park?

I’m a park ranger. All the rangers here, of course, including myself, tell stories to provide context. One thing I do love about public history is that we're not just reciting facts or you know, droning on, we're really connecting the present to the past, and kind of making it all make sense in a way that's enjoyable.

For instance, I talk about Robert Smalls. I talk about his life, his legacy. His house actually is just a couple of blocks from our visitor center in Beaufort. So I take people there and tell them about how he was enslaved, then he took a Confederate ship and sailed it to freedom. He got freedom for his family and was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

But my very special love of this place is at Darrah Hall because I wrote about education in my master’s program, and how freed people used education as a powerful tool for progression. And so [when I lead tours] I talk about the school itself, what it represented to the church, and the role of the Black church in general. 

You mentioned public history, and I know you have a master’s degree in public history, what is public history exactly?

So public history, if I just had to quickly summarize it, is taking history out of the ivory tower, and making it accessible. When I graduated from the College of Charleston, I was a part of the first group of students for the Public History Masters of Arts. It's a relatively new field. Public history takes the books, the journal articles, all the research that academics do, and makes it so the public can receive it. So it basically is working with a variety of people telling them history, especially less-well-known histories.

One of the first schools (est. in 1862) organized by northern missionaries for formerly enslaved people, during the Civil Rights Era, the Penn Center played home to the SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program and hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where plans hatched for the storied March on Washington and the Poor People’s Campaign. Photo: Robert Zaleski

Are you an outdoors person yourself?

I do like to be outside. I love being in the sun. I’m from Greenville, South Carolina, where it’s more mountainous, so I used to go hiking a lot. I love being in the mountains. And now that I live on the coast, I really like being by the water. Yeah, I like going to the beaches, or just any kind of water. 

In my life, I have been to quite a few national parks: Yellowstone, the Badlands, the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Denali, the Grand Canyon and others. Believe it or not, I think the national site that affected me the most was Antietam. I really did not want to go. I was younger, and I didn’t have much interest in the Civil War. And I went, and I was blown away. I was blown away looking at this field that's impossibly small. When I heard how many people died in the field over an impossibly small amount of time, I could not make sense of it.

Here's the other part: I went inside, and this was probably 20 years ago. They had a database and you could look up names. I typed in my last name Diggs and Buffalo Soldiers came up and all of a sudden I was connected to this land and this experience in a profound and personal way that I never imagined and that I was reluctant to embrace. My trip to Antietam changed me. It changed my attitude about a lot of things.

Growing up, my mom was really big on vacations. We would go somewhere cool every summer, so I have been to many national parks as a visitor. I went to Gettysburg. I've been to Kitty Hawk. I went to the Everglades. So being outdoors during the summer was huge on my mom's list of things we did. Gettysburg was probably my favorite. I was just a little bit older when we visited Gettysburg, so I think I appreciated it more. It was just an incredible experience to be in the place that has all this history that you hear about, and you read about while you actually stand there.  

What do you like about being a park ranger?

People love park rangers. There’s a hype around us. Like I was out at Hilton Head doing an event and people wanted to take a picture with me.

I feel like I am getting the message out there, and people believe me, and they're excited to talk to me and willing to engage. So I really like that aspect of it.

Where does your love of history come from? When did you first realize you were going to be a historian?

I have my dad to thank for that. He's a history teacher, and he’s been teaching South Carolina history longer than I've been alive.

So, from a young age, I loved it because he loved it. He used to talk to me about it and teach me things. We watched Jeopardy! together. We watched the History Channel together. Whenever we went to historic places for vacation, we would both completely just be nerds … I never wanted to be a school teacher. But I feel like I'm teaching in other ways. Just in more of a public classroom, if you will.

Is there a specific area of history that interests you?

I like to tell the history of Black women's narratives. In my previous role [at McCleod Plantation Historic Site], I focused a lot on enslaved women. In this role, I try to focus on freed women or women during Reconstruction, Black women specifically. That’s a history I’m very passionate about. Because, like I said before, those stories are not being told. As I came to this park, I was like, ‘OK, what was a Black woman's narrative?’ Harriet Tubman spent a lot of time here in Beaufort, but Charlotte Forten [an anti-slavery activist, teacher, and poet who grew up free in an abolitionist family in Philadelphia, then came to South Carolina to teach freedmen] actually worked with her. So I bring them together in that aspect. That's the history I love: telling the story people probably don't know.

Williams stands ready to dive into the past of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park’s Penn Center, located on South Carolina's St. Helena Island. Photo: Robert Zaleski

Is it important to you to be a woman in the National Park Service, especially a Black woman?

Before I started working here, I would have not even thought twice about it. But I’ve realized that Black people, especially Black women, are scarce in this agency. I remember one woman specifically said, ‘I don't think I've ever seen a Black park ranger before, especially a Black woman.’ And she was like, you know, ‘You go!’ It was amazing. 

I talked to my boss. He said, ‘People expect park rangers to look like me.’ He’s a tall, white man in his 30s [who’s also interested in making sure people know there isn’t a prototypical park ranger]. And I said, ‘When I think of a park ranger, I don't think it looks like me at all.’ There's definitely a stereotype. And it’s not for any other reason than there’s a long history of Black people not being welcomed in public spaces. Because of that, African American people, you know, we’re like, ‘Why would I want to go work in a space that didn't welcome me or my ancestors?’ There is a real problem around Black people not wanting to go to state parks, county parks, national parks, beach parks. And I said, ‘It is not because they don't want to, it's because there's a long history of segregation in those spaces.’ But there are a few Black people working in the Park Service. People need to know things like the Buffalo Soldier story; they were the first park rangers.

Why are public lands important?

A lot of people don't realize what actually happened in a lot of public spaces. I love when I’m out somewhere, no matter where it is, and I see those memorial signs and I'm like, ‘What? This historic thing happened here?’ 

Public lands really allow people to connect, and I know that’s a park ranger thing to say. But some people really do come alive when they’re in public spaces, public lands, historic public lands. Not everyone, of course, can get to public spaces for a variety of limitations. But for those who can, I feel like it’s really a community thing. And public lands allow things like gathering for exercise, fresh air, and stress relief.

I also think there's a history lesson in every public land, whether it’s Indigenous history, African American history, Spanish history. I always feel like there's something to be learned. That’s why I think working here is so important. It really is incredible to walk on the land that was the first place where the education of freed people happened. I feel connected to that, and I feel like, ‘Wow, what did I do to have the privilege of calling this my job?’

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