Darius Brown of Gray’s Hill

When Reconstruction began in 1865 following the Civil War, Beaufort County was at the heart of it. A new interactive app – Free & Equal – tells that story from the perspective of a formerly enslaved man who became a freedman, a landowner and a Union soldier.

Isaiah Brown’s descendent Darius Brown is the protagonist in the app, and talks about his ancestor’s rise from slavery to freedom.

“I remember my great-grandfather saying that Isaiah was a sergeant in the Civil War,” said Brown, a Gray’s Hill native. “My great-grandfather also talked about Isaiah’s two brothers who fought in the Civil War with him. One was named Abel, and he died in the war. Isaiah and Abel were in the same regiment – the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. And the other brother, Harry, was in the 34th regiment, and he died in the war, too.”

Both regiments were founded in February 1864.

Isaiah was a leader in the community after the war, Brown said.

“My great-grandfather told me that Isaiah started the Mount Zion Society in 1869. They used to go around and help the poor in Beaufort.”

Free & Equal is a tour of Beaufort’s Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, with visits to the home of a future Harriet Tubman monument at the Tabernacle Baptist Church, and the Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island. The tour experience was directed by Michael Epstein of Walking Cinema, an innovative San Francisco-based studio that combines real world experiences with handheld media. The project included support from the University of South Carolina-Beaufort.

“Scholars from USCB were involved as historical consultants from the beginning of the project in 2018 when it was initiated through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” said J. Brent Morris, professor of history and Humanities Department Chair at the university.

Once the app was created, USCB faculty and history students tested out the app as it was in development, and assisted with troubleshooting and fact-checking. The project took three years to complete.

“The Reconstruction Era was literally a period of rebuilding – it entailed the reshaping of the ideologies of the defeated Old South, and the physical re-construction of the region so desolated by the ravages of war,” said Morris, “and, as a nation, developing policies that thoroughly remade and modernized America and laid the foundation for the ‘Second Reconstruction’ – the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and ’60s.”

A public launch for the app was held in Port Royal on June 17, ahead of Juneteenth Day, the newest federal holiday.

“Reconstruction began in Beaufort County, and arguably lasted longer here than anywhere else in America” Morris said. “This is a remarkable opportunity to bring technology and scholarship together to tell this inspiring story, and showcase our own exciting history.”

For Brown, a budding genealogist, Free & Equal is an opportunity to share the history of his family and of many others who shared the same experiences.

“To me it means that I am able to tell my ancestors’ story,” said Brown. “I get to tell the story of Reconstruction from the perspective of a black person that was enslaved and transitioning from slave to free, became a Union soldier, and was able to purchase land.”

The app is in the Apple app store now and will be available in Goggle Play in the fall.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.