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Tours look to contextualize complicated history of SC Statehouse monuments

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Ben Tillman statue

A pamphlet distributed in 1937 to raise money for this statue of Ben Tillman praised him for “frightening prospective Negro voters away from the polls.”

“Monuments are not history.” That’s not a take you’d likely expect to hear from a historian leading a tour of monuments on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse.

But it was a statement demonstrably offered recently by Lydia Mattice Brandt, an associate professor in art and architectural history at the University of South Carolina, as she talked to about two dozen people at the capitol.

“Monuments are memories,” Brandt said. “They are physical evidence of memories, an end result of a series of very specific choices about how to use the past in the present.”

And in the case of the Statehouse, which has more than 30 monuments situated on 22 acres, historical context is critical in achieving a more well-rounded understanding of the various statues, sculptures and other markers sprayed across the grounds of the capitol.

Now there’s an effort underway to offer greater context about the monuments at the Statehouse, some of which have a history with tendrils connected to slavery and white supremacy.

Historic Columbia has received an $8,000 S.C. Humanities grant to explore the history behind the monuments at the Statehouse. The money was used for documenting the Statehouse grounds and developing a web-based tour of the Statehouse grounds that went live on Aug. 30, as well as to help develop public, guided tours of the grounds.

Brandt, author of the book "First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination," has spent the past year doing a comprehensive survey of the monuments at the Statehouse. Her research is the basis of the new web-based tour.

“I think in the last several years, really since the [Confederate] flag came off the Statehouse grounds (in 2015) and since the events in Charlottesville, there have been conversations across the South, in particular, about monuments that represent the Confederacy and white supremacy in general,” Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites said. “We certainly have been interested in having those same conversations about the grounds of the Statehouse, as well as, broadly, how historic places are interpreted in our community.”

Those conversations are beginning with a set of guided tours to various monuments at the Statehouse set for October and December. 

Following the guided tours, attendees will be asked to fill out an online survey about the experience, and in January they will be invited to facilitated discussions about the tour and the larger context of monuments at the Statehouse.

Looking beyond January, Waites says the plan is for guided Statehouse monument tours, providing context about the various statues and markers on the grounds, to become a regular part of Historic Columbia's roster of tours.

Complicated Past

In late September, Brandt led the first tour related to the Historic Columbia initiative.

Unlike the upcoming public tours, the attendees of that first event were a group of more than a dozen local “thought leaders” — including One Columbia for Arts and Culture leader Lee Snelgrove, longtime ETV journalist Beryl Dakers and former state first lady Rachel Hodges — who were handpicked for a sort of pilot run. 

“I want to give you some framework for skills and strategies for how to look at these monuments,” Brandt told the group. “The things I’m going to talk about apply, really, to every and any monument. So, my hope is that, at the end of the tour, you’ll know a little bit more about the Statehouse grounds, but you’ll also be empowered and comfortable looking at monuments no matter where you are in the world, really. These are the most legible art forms possible.”

For instance, Brandt offered background on the George Washington monument that now rests at the bottom of the north steps of the Statehouse, facing Gervais Street. At an initial glance, it may seem to simply be a statue of the first president. But consider the context: The statue was purchased by South Carolina in 1858, installed on the first floor of the Statehouse in 1864, and later moved to its current location in 1911.

As noted in Historic Columbia’s online tour of Statehouse monuments, the Washington statue, purchased just before and installed during the Civil War, “expressed the kinship that antebellum South Carolina politicians felt with the revolutionary hero and slaveholder as they defended their own right to continue as a society defined by slavery.”

Brandt expanded on that thought.

“South Carolinians, much like Virginians, loved George Washington and they held George Washington up in the 1850s as a symbol of what makes slavery great, and what makes rebellion of a group of people against another great,” Brandt said. “This really was a statement … of South Carolina’s belief in slavery and its ability to fight for slavery, to push back against those who have power over them in order to defend it.”

And there is the monument to late former governor and U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman, situated north of the Statehouse, close to Gervais Street.

One of the plaques on the statue refers lovingly to Tillman as a “friend and leader of the common people.” What the monument doesn’t make mention of is Tillman’s dark history regarding race.

As noted on Historic Columbia’s online Statehouse monument tour, “[Tillman’s] actions as governor — as an avowed white supremacist who called for accused black rapists to be lynched and regularly boasted of his participation in the 1876 Hamburg Massacre, where he claimed to have 'shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes' — marked the beginning of South Carolina’s Jim Crow era.”

Brandt noted the Tillman statue was erected at the Statehouse in 1940, two decades after Tillman’s death and just before the South Carolina NAACP began to gain strength.

“He was a populist,” Brandt told attendees on the late September tour. “He appealed directly to poor, white farmers and gathered them to push back against black people and push back against the elites.”

Looking Ahead

Waites, the Historic Columbia director, says she is hopeful the public and online Statehouse tours, and the surveys and facilitated conversations that will result from them, will help open a dialogue about the various monuments on the Statehouse grounds.

The state’s Heritage Act — part of a compromise that resulted in the Confederate flag being removed from the Statehouse dome in 2000 — prohibits the removal or altering of historic monuments without two-thirds support in both chambers of the Legislature.

“At this point we would be limited in what could be done on the grounds themselves,” Waites said. "What some other states are doing right now is erecting some interpretive signage that is adjacent to monuments. They are not removing monuments, they are just providing a much richer context.”

Snelgrove, the leader of the city-sponsored arts boosting organization One Columbia, says he found the September Historic Columbia Statehouse tour, and its web-based tour, compelling.

“I think it was eye-opening, and I think I have a little bit more knowledge about monuments and how the Heritage Act has worked recently than probably most [people],” Snelgrove tells Free Times. “As I’ve been talking to people about monuments on the Statehouse grounds, I’ve often sort of said that there are a few complicated monuments on the Statehouse grounds.

"That [Historic Columbia] tour kind of pointed out a little bit more context that kind of led me to realize that even ones that I didn’t think were all that complicated in their histories did have some complexity and were maybe saying something I didn’t realize. One example is the George Washington monument.”

Waites says she’s hopeful the tour-and-response process will help indicate what South Carolinians would like to see in regard to contextualizing monuments.

“The whole point of this, the kind of laying the ground work with these tours, sending people the link to the website and having the conversations afterwards, is to kind of test the waters here,” Waites says. “What’s the threshold? What are people willing to kind of take on in Columbia and South Carolina?”

Want to go?

Historic Columbia will lead tours of the history behind the Statehouse monuments led by Lydia Mattice Brandt, an associate professor in art and architectural history at the University of South Carolina, and Tom Brown, USC history professor.

The tours will be at 10 a.m. Oct. 19, 10 a.m. Dec. 7 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15.

Historic Columbia is looking to limit each tour to 25 guests. Register at  

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