Black Charleston and the Battle over Confederate Statues

Rally against Confederate statue in Richmond, Virginia (Wikimedia Commons).

On January 9, 2018, the Charleston City Council deferred voting on a proposed new plaque for the John C. Calhoun statue downtown in Marion Square. Even before the matter came before the City Council, there was tension over late changes to the originally approved language. The final version of the plaque removed language that referred to slavery as a “crime against humanity” and addressed the “plague of racism” of which Calhoun was a part. Many members of the public, especially Black Charlestonians, were furious. A solution that was already a compromise had become even less biting. The Chairman of the Charleston History Commission responsible for the plaque, Harlan Greene, said of the language, “I think you will see we are praising Calhoun and condemning Calhoun at the same time.” The racial breakdown of the vote for the plaque’s language is unavailable, but it is notable that only four of the thirteen commission members are African American. White male Calhoun defenders present at the council meeting claimed that even the revised language contained too many “opinions about race” and that it should instead be a “historical statement.”

In the end, the statue of a man who defended slavery will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. African American council members stated quite strongly in the aftermath of the vote that a plaque would not be sufficient; that Calhoun must come down. African American City Councilman Robert Mitchell recounting the many times he was arrested near the statue during civil rights demonstrations said, “those feelings for me can’t change, regardless of the wording—because of what he stood for at the time.”

Recent protests have coalesced around the continued glorification of Charleston’s history of racial violence and white supremacy symbolized in the statue. Opposed to removing any monuments, Mayor John Tecklenberg tasked the History Commission of Charleston with providing new inscriptions or historic contextualization for plaques. The watered-down final version of the wording of the inscription on the Calhoun plaque demonstrates one problem with this approach: Mayor Tecklenberg and other local white politicians aimed for compromise rather than an uncomfortable truth, complicating any resulting language.

The bigger problem with contextualization, however, is that it assumes that the architecture and opulence of the monument itself are not the problem; that additional words or the right words can remediate the monument’s aesthetic power and message. Kirk Savage argues in Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves that “once a monument was built and took its place in the landscape of people’s lives: it became a kind of natural fact, as if it had always been meant to be.” The images portrayed are the collective memories of certain actors and groups, etched in stone. By its very nature, inscriptions added for corrective context can only remain secondary to this. Of course this is not just a Charleston problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio commissioned a committee near the end of 2017 with similarly unimpressive results in the name of “compromise.”

John C. Calhoun Statue in Charleston, South Carolina (Wikimedia Commons).

Leaving the fate of monuments up to a commission with a vague mandate has proven to be impractical. The plaque did go further than the 8th grade history of South Carolina textbooks do in describing the life and career of Calhoun. Neglecting his infamous 1837 speech where he described slavery as a “positive good” and expounded on the inferiority of enslaved Africans, one textbook instead describes Calhoun as “a strong voice for South Carolina and states’ rights.”

While never denying that he supported slavery, his actions are presented as just those of a statesman fighting first and foremost for South Carolinians, and not as a man whose words provided a key ideological underpinning for pro-slavery defense for generations of politicians and historians alike. From the history textbooks to the battles in the State House and City Council, South Carolina has clearly not reckoned with the legacy of one of its most well-known statesmen, and it seems unlikely to in the near future. His name is everywhere, from streets in Charleston to the name of the Honors College at Clemson University. A plaque was supposed to resolve the recent tensions over his statue in Charleston, but it only became a futile exercise in salving discontent.

African Americans had no say in the political and cultural movement that pushed for the original monument. The monument was first conceived of during the 1850s, shortly after Calhoun’s death, by several organizations including the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association. Erected in 1887, the original statue was eventually replaced with a new one in 1896 as a result of African Americans mocking its design. African Americans have vandalized it many times, and an unknown person vandalized the statue in 2015. During this vandalization, the inscription “Truth, Justice, and Constitution” was amended to add the words “and Slavery” and the word “racist” was also spray-painted on its base.

The attitudes of Black Charlestonians toward Calhoun and his statue have been clear. Some have vandalized it, adding their own version of contextualization, others mocked it, and most have openly detested it. As Thomas J. Brown argues in Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina, just as Calhoun himself provided an essential ideological framework for the Confederacy, the committees to erect his statue became a model for Confederate memory organizations for generations to come. The Calhoun statue set a precedent, and the history of the statue and what it has meant for African Americans in Charleston need to be fully considered.

People gather at the Confederate Museum during a protest in Charleston, South Carolina on June 2015 (Photo: Bendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images).

The United States is in a particular moment of reconsidering monuments, memorials, statues, and other sites of memory. Contextualization has long been on the spectrum of solutions to the problem of these spaces. However some municipalities have decided to just remove statues altogether. In what became a heralded speech, Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans described why the statues in his city must come down. In Baltimore and Memphis Confederate statues came down. It was soon a national phenomenon. This phenomenon has yet to reach Charleston, the city whose recent history of racial violence at the Emmanuel AME Church massacre in 2015 precipitated this latest push to remove Confederate emblems across the nation. Despite the removal of the Confederate flag in 2015 from the grounds of the state house, all of the Confederate statues in the city remain. Local politicians point to a state law, the Heritage Act, as the reason for this inaction.

Passed in 2000, the law allows for the relocation of the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina state capitol building to a memorial on the grounds of the state house and enhanced protections of all other Confederate, local, and state monuments. The text of the law is broad and covers any state or local monument regardless of the original intention. That same year brought another imbalanced “compromise.” As the last state in the nation to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a state holiday, South Carolina finally legalized it as a state holiday, but it also created Confederate Memorial Day as a holiday. Compromise again was a one-sided affair, and a concession to white South Carolinians still attached to the reverence of the Confederacy.

Much of the commemorative landscape of the United States was created by deliberately ignoring and excluding the voices, opinions, and collective memories of a host of marginalized groups, including African Americans. If there is to be a corrective to the racist attitudes that led to the enshrinement of Calhoun’s statue, African American memory must be centered and the memory of African American resistance to this statue must be acknowledged and respected. Suggesting contextualization with euphemistic language does not do this. By taking a moderate stance, rather than advocating for a repeal of the Heritage Act that could eventually allow for removal of the statue, the mayor and other white members of the city’s leadership are bolstering the racial hierarchy of memory and commemorating the statue of Calhoun.

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Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders

Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History department at Rutgers University. Her research interests include 19th and 20th Century U.S. history, African American history, African American Civil War memory, and the legacy of the Lost Cause. Her dissertation project, “Confronting the Rebel Yell: How African Americans Created and Contested Civil War Memory, 1865-1965,” examines how African American Civil War memory evolved in the century after the war's end. Follow her on Twitter @AshleighWrites.