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The John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The city of Charleston's Commission on History has finalized the language for the plaque to be placed in front of the towering John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square.

After undergoing several rounds of revisions at commission meetings during the past few months, the plaque now offers a much gentler explanation of the 19th century politician's place in history. 

His role in state and federal government is described first, while his commitment to the institution of slavery comes afterwards in the last few sentences. 

The original version led with: "This statue to John C. Calhoun (1782 - 1850) is a relic of the crime against humanity, the folly of some political leaders and the plague of racism."

At a November meeting, some commissioners, including City Councilman Bill Moody, said they thought the opening paragraph should be more neutral. 

The current introduction reads: "This monument to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career."

The phrases "crime against humanity" and "plague of racism" have been erased from the new version.

The commission has been working to fulfill Mayor John Tecklenburg's charge to add new contextual information to Confederate monuments, as well as to add new African-American monuments across the city to create a more balanced narrative of Charleston's history. 

The mayor made the announcement in August, as other cities across the country grappled with what to do about their Confederate relics in the wake of a white supremacist rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va.

The Calhoun plaque is the first and perhaps the most prominent task on the commission's list. The statue in the center of downtown Charleston is erected on a 115-foot pedestal, one of the tallest in South Carolina. The monument currently provides very little information on Calhoun.

Commission Chairman Harlan Greene, an archivist, said the first draft for a new plaque was written by commissioner, lawyer and historian Robert Rosen as a starting point for the rest of the group to edit.

"That was just one person’s thought," Greene said. "We actually voted sentence by sentence, and a majority ruled in each case."

Greene said the seven people who spoke during the public comment period Wednesday urged the commission to avoid the phrase "crime against humanity." All were white men, and some used Bible verses to make their point, Greene said.

"They asked us not to put anything up that would inflame people," he said.

Bernard Powers, a historian at the College of Charleston who advises the commission, said he was disappointed with the text approved this week. He couldn't make it to the meeting.

"It’s not a bold flash of truth about Calhoun and what he represented," Powers said. "The truth of the matter is, if we are unwilling to say slavery is a crime against humanity, then what ... can we really label as a crime against humanity?"

Greene said the commission is racially diverse, and its ultimate decision to approve the final language was not made along racial lines.

"I don’t think it was on racial grounds, I think it was more along ideological grounds," he said. "I don’t think anybody was vehemently upset with anything because there was a spirit of compromise."

Michael Allen, one of the four black members of the 13-person commission, wasn't able to attend the meeting Wednesday, but he endorsed the final text. 

He said it fulfilled the plaque's purpose of distancing Charleston's current society from the one that erected the monument more than a century ago.

"The objective was to acknowledge the time in which this marker was placed there," he said.

The approach Charleston and some other cities are taking have been widely criticized, most notably by political comedian John Oliver on HBO's "Last Week Tonight."

He garnered international attention after arguing on the popular late-night TV show that adding African-American monuments to a landscape of Confederate monuments didn't necessarily provide balance.

"If we really want to learn from and honor our history, perhaps the first step might be to put these statues somewhere more appropriate surrounded by ample historical context, like in a museum, where people go to proactively learn about history," Oliver said. 

The last line of the Calhoun plaque appears to counter that point:

"Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state's past."

Tecklenburg also said the state's Heritage Act makes it difficult for local governments to remove any Confederate monuments.

The law was part of a compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome in 2000, and it forbids any other public removal of other flags or memorials from the Confederacy without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

"The Speaker of the House has already said things like that will be unlikely to happen. And sometimes it takes so long for the legislature to act," Tecklenburg said. "I just felt it was best to try to completely tell a more balanced view of the story, the historical context." 

Before the plaque is mounted, the text will be reviewed by City Council at a future meeting.

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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