The city of Charleston's History Commission on Wednesday wrestled with how to phrase the new plaque for the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square, but the language hasn't been set in stone yet.
In a two-hour meeting, the group parsed through each line of a draft originally written by Commissioner, Charleston lawyer and historian Robert Rosen. The group began tweaking the language last month.
The protracted process underscores how challenging and time-consuming it may be for the commission and City Council to fulfill Mayor John Tecklenburg's charge to add new contextual information to existing historical monuments, as well as adding some new monuments across the city to create a more balanced narrative of its Confederate-related history.
The new plaque for the Calhoun statue is the first and perhaps the most urgent task on the list. Its current plaque simply says Calhoun's name, birth and death dates, and the phrase, "Truth, Justice and the Constitution."
The new inscription will aim to denounce his white supremacist views while also describing his background as a distinguished politician who served as a prominent U.S. Senator and vice president of the United States.
Many on the commission disagreed about the proposed language of the opening paragraph, which centers on Calhoun's background as an advocate for slavery. It stated:
"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. It remains standing today as a grave reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political career was defined by his support of race-based slavery. Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations."
Some wanted to place the paragraph lower on the final plaque, while others wanted to revise it and keep it at the beginning.
"I think putting that first sentence with the inflammatory statement shuts down people from reading the whole thing," said City Councilman Bill Moody, who serves on the commission.
Rosen said he hadn't decided whether the plaque should say the statue represents "the crime against humanity," since slavery was technically legal at the time.
Commissioner Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston historian, disagreed.
"If slavery was not a crime against humanity, what would be? Let me know," he said.
Terry Conder, a resident who attended the meeting, said he appreciated the way it was phrased.
"I think this language is exactly appropriate," he said.
The commission agreed on other revisions, such as removing the word "brilliant" to describe Calhoun's work as a political theorist.
Tecklenburg's idea to amend rather than remove Confederate monuments came 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.
Tecklenburg's approach has been met with mixed reviews. Some have been supportive, while other residents have said certain monuments should be removed from public parks and placed in museums.
The commission's ultimate decision will be forwarded to City Council, which will make the final decision on any additional plaque.