top of page

What is the significance of “Freedman” in the Freedman Arts District?


The District’s name honors the previously enslaved people who established homes in the area that is now the Freedman Arts District. This area, mostly in the current day Northwest Quadrant and Old Commons neighborhoods, was settled almost entirely by African Americans during and following the Civil War. It played a special historic role and has a unique contribution to African American and Beaufort history.


Beaufort’s Unique History


Beaufort’s history during the Civil War and for several years afterward, was considerably different than that of the rest of the state of South Carolina. At the beginning of the war, Beaufort was essentially a summer resort for wealthy planters whose economic lives consisted of growing expensive Sea Island cotton on area plantations. The actual work was undertaken by slaves, who functioned relatively independently during their masters’ summer retreats to healthier climates. During the war, Beaufort's African American population began to grow as refugees from nearby plantations and made their way to Beaufort looking for shelter and work.


When Union troops occupied Beaufort and the surrounding Sea Islands in November and December 1861, there were two important results:

  • The area’s enslaved people were de facto freed (although not de jure until the “Emancipation Proclamation” in January 1863).

  • Beaufort was not burned to the ground in late 1864, as were most other communities in what was then known as the “Beaufort District” (and is now the counties of Beaufort, Hampton, and Jasper).


When Beaufort was occupied by federal troops December 1861, most of its residents had already fled their homes never to return. At first classified as contraband of war, and later freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly freed people took part in the first efforts to assimilate into the broader society, which became known as the Sea Island experiment. With the establishment of schools such as the Penn School on St. Helena Island and the Mather School on Port Royal Island, freedmen were given access to educational opportunities and redistribution of land resulting from the direct tax, allowing many to be able to purchase land for the first time. The result was the development in the Beaufort area of a social, political, and economic society unique in the south.  A society where a substantial African American population had an ability to own property. This is the first tangible element of the beginning of economic self-sufficiency for formerly enslaved people.


As a result of this economic self-sufficiency, Beaufort is thought to have become somewhat of a haven for African Americans during Reconstruction. Many of the freedmen remained on the plantations, continuing to raise cotton, corn, and sweet potatoes, as employees of the Federal Government but some fled to the city. The African American population in the city rose in part as people moved from surrounding counties to avail themselves of the more favorable political and social climate. Beaufort's population shifted from a white majority to an African American one. With this majority, Beaufort's African American community was able to gain substantial political influence.


Establishment of Freedman’s Village


In the latter 1800s, Beaufort's economy recovered due to the development of the phosphate industry and the resurgence of sea island cotton cultivation. This new prosperity created jobs that allowed many African Americans to leave the former plantations to settle in town. Some built new dwellings scattered within the city's existing neighborhoods and some settled in communities, including what is now called the Northwest Quadrant, but was then referred to as a “freedman’s village.” As the book “Eve of Emancipation: The Union Occupation of Beaufort and the Sea Islands” (Portsmouth House Press, 1996) commented: “Even before the end of the war, as slaves fled from unoccupied areas to Hilton Head, St. Helena’s and Lady’s islands, and Beaufort, new settlements were formed, including one adjacent to downtown Beaufort…in an area that extends from the National Cemetery along such streets as Congress, Union and Hamar. A distinctive one-story-with-front porch-style developed, called the ‘freedman’s cottage.’ Many examples still exist there.”


An 1878 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, stated that most of the city's African Americans occupied "their former slave quarters or new and neat shanties or houses." The modest buildings, including the Freedman Cottages, illustrate an important chapter in the history of Beaufort. The area developed in the years following the Civil War and was populated predominantly by African American tradespeople, domestics, laborers, and small business owners. Among those living in the District, were the builders and artisans responsible for building many of the historically significant buildings throughout Beaufort.


Freedman Cottages - Significance in the National Historic Landmark District Nomination


The Beaufort Landmark Historic District was established in 1971.  The original nomination in 1971 focused on “great houses set in gracious space” and “plantation homes brought to town.” Freedman cottages are rarely referenced.  Freedman Cottages are small timber-framed homes with a rectangular shaped plan, gable roofs, and a piazza.


When the Historic District Nomination was updated in 2001, the update stated, “Preservation of these small buildings created by formerly enslaved people, or their descendants is more important than ever.”


“The unique role Beaufort played in the history of the African American experience in America is of national importance.  The contrast between these two historical periods and the tangible evidence of their impact on Beaufort’s built environment provides a far more compelling argument for the district’s listing on the National Register and designation as a National Historic District Landmark than that upon which the designation was originally based.” The preservation of these buildings as a physical manifestation of freed slaves overcoming obstacles and beginning their path to economic self-sufficiency is essential. As stated by former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt after touring the District, “The story is not just a Beaufort story, the story is not just a South Carolina story, the story is an American story.” 


What is the importance of restoring the Freedman Cottages and other homes in the District?


From the end of the Civil War until the early 1990s, the District continued to house a largely African American population. Some of the current residents are descendants of the original owners of the homes. Due in part to complex ownership situations among heirs to property and the expense of home maintenance, some homes sit vacant and in need of significant repair. Surviving partially a result of heir’s property challenges, these buildings from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s create a visual story of the architecture and prosperity of African Americans during that time. The Freedman Arts District will assist property owners in the District restore their homes, transforming them into income producing assets while retaining family ownership and preserving the architecture.  





City of Beaufort “The Northwest Quadrant Design Principles”

City of Beaufort “The Northwest Quadrant Strategic Plan”

The 2001 Beaufort Historic District Landmark Update

bottom of page