President Barack Obama has been invited to Charleston this spring to participate in the 150th anniversary observance of the first firing on Fort Sumter, the start of the nation's defining conflict.
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Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said Wednesday the city has invited the president to take part in the city's premier sesquicentennial event on April 11, offering Obama the chance to narrate composer Aaron Copland's work "Lincoln Portrait" during a commemorative concert at White Point Garden.
It could be Obama's first visit to South Carolina since his election. Riley noted that it would be particularly significant if Obama, the nation's first black president, read the words of President Abraham Lincoln, whose 1860 election set in motion secession, civil war and ultimately the emancipation of the nation's 4 million slaves.
The Fort Sumter National Monument, run by the National Park Service, is extending its own invitation to Obama.
It is not known if Obama will attend. For security and other reasons, the White House often doesn't confirm the president's schedule more than a few days ahead of time.
Obama's possible visit is just one layer to the growing number of sesquicentennial events, and National Parks Service officials met Wednesday with two dozen mayors and other government officials to give them an idea of what is on the way.
Dawn Davis, chief of Fort Sumter's Visitor Services, said the anniversary can spark strong differences of opinion and painful memories, but also has the potential for growth and dialogue.
With no federal or state agency orchestrating the 150th commemoration, the Fort Sumter Fort Moultrie Historical Trust has stepped forward to organize the Lowcountry's observance, working with the National Park Service and local governments, such as the city of Charleston.
Trust President Robert Rosen said, "We want to set a high tone for the sesquicentennial," one featuring leading historians and working to educate schoolchildren.
Other groups also are free to mark the occasion, said John Tucker, former director at Fort Sumter and vice president of the trust.
"Ultimately, the local jurisdictions will make the decisions about whether there will be a cannon under the bridge in Mount Pleasant," he said, noting that the Park Service has heard from re-enactors interested in the town's new Waterfront Memorial Park. "We will tell you that's not a good idea. We're willing to take the hit, that's what it boils down to."
Michael Allen of the National Park Service said the agency and trust plan to have an observance that looks beyond the battlefield and examines the war's social, political and other aspects.
"We will come out of this commemoration with a better South Carolina and there will be some healing for all South Carolinians," he said.
National Park Service historian Rick Hatcher said up to 450 historic re-enactors from as far away as Europe may be present at Forts Sumter and Moultrie as well as the Fort Sumter Visitors Center.
And those are just the ones authorized through the Park Service. Another group may gather at the James Island Yacht Club, and another has inquired into renting Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant.
Others also have contacted the Park Service interested in taking part in re-enacting the shelling of the fort, an event that neither the Park Service nor the trust plan to do, save for commemorative shots the night of April 11 and again at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, the precise anniversary of the shot.
"They just want to go make bang-bang somewhere," Tucker said of some groups. "That's a real problem."
Charleston already has had a taste of the controversy that can be stirred up. While the city and trust plan to mark the 150th anniversary of secession by dedicating a historical marker on Meeting Street on Monday, plans for a Secession Ball in the Gaillard Auditorium have triggered protest plans from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and jokes on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
NAACP State Chairman Lonnie Randolph has likened the event to celebrating 9/11 or Adolf Hitler.
The Fort Sumter Fort Moultrie Trust said it has not supported or contributed to the Secession Ball -- which is being held by the Confederate Heritage Trust, which includes Sons of Confederate veterans chapters -- and will not, Rosen said.
"The Trust believes that slavery was an abomination and therefore cannot celebrate a political event which the participants themselves believed was designed to continue the institution of slavery," Rosen said in a statement.
"The trust agrees, however, that heritage groups have every right to their point of view and every right to commemorate and celebrate history as they understand it. The trust does not believe these groups intend any offense to anyone."
Riley said his opinion is that the Secession Ball is "unfortunate," particularly as early wording described it as "a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink."
"It was a tragic event," Riley said of secession. However, Riley said he has heard no backlash about the city's renting its Gaillard facility to those staging the Secession Ball, which includes a theatrical interpretation of the secession convention, followed by dinner and dancing.
"It's not an official event," Riley said. "It's a private event, and people have the right to have private events."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
If you go
One of the sesquicentennial's first events will be a 'Confrontation to Conflict' exhibit set to open at 11 a.m. Friday in Columbia at the S.C. Department of Archives and History's headquarters, 8301 Parklane Road. The free exhibit debuts exactly 150 years after South Carolina opened its Secession Convention that would lead to the state leaving the Union three days later.On Monday, the city of Charleston and Fort Sumter Fort Moultrie Historical Trust will dedicate a historical marker near 134 Meeting St., the site of the S.C. Institute Hall where the Ordinance of Secession was signed. The time for the event has not been announced.