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Charleston Forum survey finds racial divide on the handling of controversial statues

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In a survey of Lowcountry residents by the Charleston Forum, it found that there was a divide between Black and White respondents around addressing the removal of controversial statues and public displays. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Debates around Confederate monuments and symbols and exclusive clubs have been a consistent source of tension in the Charleston area.

A recent survey shows area residents are still split on whether removing controversial public displays is the right decision.  

The Charleston Forum recently commissioned a survey to highlight residents' perspectives on race relations. The forum was established in 2016 following the tragic slayings of nine African American members of Emanuel AME Church at the hands of a white supremacist.

The survey results feature responses from 705 residents in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. The survey shows a split among Black and White residents on questions about the handling of monuments of controversial figures. 

That debate was pushed to the forefront after the May death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

Ongoing protests across the nation following Floyd's death led to calls for the removal of monuments of people and groups associated with the Confederacy and slave ownership. Protests led to the removal in June of the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square in Charleston. Calhoun was a South Carolina statesman, former vice president and ardent slavery supporter.

Most of the White respondents in the Charleston Forum survey disagreed with removing controversial monuments. The majority of the Black participants thought they should be.

"It’s not surprising to me that this remains a point of division," said Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Different perspectives

Calhoun died more than 10 years before the Confederacy was established. 

It was the ownership of slaves and his position on it as a positive for the country that caused many to argue for the removal of his Marion Square monument. 

Charles Tyler, president of National Action Network's Charleston chapter, grew up in the Charleston area and said some Black people in the community look at the statue as a reminder of a darker time. 

In the past, Black people weren't allowed to cross Calhoun Street, the former location of the statue. Tyler was one of many voices that pushed for the statue's eventual removal.

"It was joy to my heart," he said. 

Only 35 percent of White participants agreed that controversial statues and public displays like Calhoun's should be removed. The majority of the Black respondents, around 65 percent, agreed with the practice. 

A similar division was seen on a question about whether the tri-county was going too far and too fast with addressing controversial displays. Nearly half of the White participants agreed, while only about 24 percent of the Black residents agreed. 

Debra Gammons, a Charleston School of Law professor and a committee member with the Charleston Forum, said she sees arguments around removing monuments involving slave owners to be complicated. It involves having to address additional countless people, such as U.S. presidents who participated in slavery.

“You have to be consistent if that is your argument," she said.

One of the main arguments for protecting the displays is to preserve history. Included in those controversial displays are debates like renaming military bases named after Confederate officers. 

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Liz Alston, a historian at Emanuel AME Church, watches with binoculars as crews work to remove the statue of John C. Calhoun from its perch in Marion Square on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Majority of the Black residents that participated in a Charleston Forum survey agreed that controversial public displays should be removed. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Jamie Graham, a retired Army sergeant and the S.C. Division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told The Post and Courier in June the Confederates have been a long part of American history. 

He said he saw the potential renaming as being misguided. Hodges, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor executive director, said what is happening now involves competing narratives about history. 

Regardless of a person's position, people are essentially being asked to reframe their understanding of history.

“By definition there will be disagreements," she said. 

But there is some agreement among residents in the survey's section on controversial symbols and clubs. The majority of participants agreed, regardless of race, that all Confederate flags should be removed from all state government property. 

The battle flag

In the summer of 2015, activist Bree Newsome made headlines after she climbed the flagpole of the S.C. Statehouse’s Confederate Soldier Monument in Columbia and removed the rebel flag.

Charleston Church Shooting Photo Gallery (copy)

In the Charleston Forum survey it found that majority of participants agreed that Confederate flags should be removed from all state government property. File/Bruce Smith/AP Photo

Newsome was arrested for the act when she climbed down. She removed the Confederate battle flag a few days after the Emanuel AME Church shooting.

A pro-Confederate flag rally was organized the same day as Newsome's flag removal. Participants and flag supporters at the time called for her to be punished to the fullest extend of the law. 

They saw the flag as a form of heritage, not hate. 

Nearly 60 percent of all the Charleston Forum survey participants agreed that there shouldn't be Confederate flags on state government property. 

Gammons said there is a difference between a flag on government property and a statue or monument. A state building is supposed to be something that is representative of everyone, she said. 

But a flag is just a piece of cloth and a statue is just stone, she said. Neither should have much meaning.

Charleston native Willi Glee was a member of Emanuel at the time of the mass shooting. He said he agrees that government buildings shouldn't be the place for Confederate flags or statues.

If a person wants to have those items on their private property, then it's their decision, he said. 

For people who view the removal of these items as erasing history, Glee said that is impossible. 

"History is still in the history book," he said. 

Some see the residents in the survey agreeing as a sign that more people may be slowly coming to an understanding on certain issues.

Private clubs

In the survey's section on controversial symbols and clubs, nearly 70 percent of participants agreed that private clubs or groups that exclude people based on race are prejudiced. 

Some experts see that conversation as being a little more complicated. Yacht clubs in the Charleston area and the Charleston Rifle Club have been accused of excluding women and people of color. 

The clubs are predominately White and male. Defenders of those organizations have argued that groups like the Owls Whist Club, a predominately Black membership club, are guilty of the same thing. 

“I think it's a difficult question to parse," Hodges said. “There are so many ways we as Americans organize ourselves."

Glee was a historian for the Owls Whist Club and argues that many organizations similar to it were founded because Black people were being excluded from other groups. 

And in general Gammons said that ultimately it's legal for people to associate with whom they want. Often people end up connected with the people around them. 

“It may not be as simple as they’re prejudiced," she said.

While the survey highlights debates and dividing opinions, some experts argue that debates around symbols and clubs are smaller than longterm conversations on issues of racism or white supremacy.

They want to see more emphasis placed on issues around education and inequality. Hodges said she hopes more attention is placed on the Black and Gullah-Geechee history in South Carolina. 

This month, hundreds of unmarked graves of Black slaves and indentured convicts were discovered by researchers near Calhoun’s Fort Hill plantation in Clemson. 

“That sort of underscores how far we have to go," Hodges said.

Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.

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