Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg asked the city’s History Commission on Wednesday to consider adding a number of revised historical markers as well as some new monuments across the city in an effort to create a more balanced narrative of Confederate-related history.
Among the list of ideas he laid out in a letter to the commission was a proposal to erect a monument to African-American Union soldiers at White Point Garden or Waterfront Park.
The commission already was scheduled to take up Tecklenburg's call to update the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square with more historical context about what the South Carolinian stood for.
"It may take a while for the commission to work through all these, but I would ask you to consider a kind of yearlong challenge of going back and looking at our inventory of our markers and memorials," Tecklenburg said. "Can we do a better job? Can we tell a better message?"
Commission Chairman Harlan Greene, local historian and head of special collections at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, said the group accepted.
"We as a commission welcome that charge, and it will be difficult to do," he said. "There's so much to tell."
However, from a procedural standpoint, Greene said it has not been the commission's role to pursue the sorts of projects the mayor has requested. Rather, outside groups typically submit proposals to the commission to be fact-checked, revised and approved.
"This is slightly new for us, that we're asked to reinterpret a historical monument," he said.
The commission decided to defer discussion, although a few commissioners said they wanted to look at how other cities had handled similar challenges.
Tecklenburg said after the meeting that he felt the group was "receptive" to his ideas.
In his letter, the mayor called for:
- A new plaque on the Calhoun statue in Marion Square to be written by the History Commission and approved by City Council. The plaque will describe Calhoun and his views on racism, slavery and white supremacy.
- Additional plaques and explanatory information at other relevant monuments, including the Wade Hampton monument at Marion Square and Defenders of Fort Sumter at White Point Garden.
- An online educational component on the city’s website to explain the historical significance of race, racism, slavery and white supremacy with regard to city monuments, places or buildings.
- More way-finding signage to direct Hampton Park visitors to the Denmark Vesey monument, which is situated near its center in a secluded garden. He also called for new signage to include more information and direct people to an online link to learn more about his story.
- The creation of a significant African-American monument at White Point Garden or Riley Waterfront Park. Such a monument would have to be backed by the commission and approved by City Council.
Tecklenburg said the city needed a monument to honor the First South Carolina Volunteers, escaped slaves from South Carolina who served — at the risk of being hanged — as Union soldiers.
"We should recognize their bravery and courage, and that story has never been told," he said.
He added after the meeting that he already had in mind the language and location that might be appropriate for that site.
Earlier this month, as cities across the country grappled with what to do about their Confederate monuments in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va., Tecklenburg announced he wanted to add to the city's monuments rather than take them down.
That's partly because any removal might require a super-majority vote of the S.C. Legislature under the state's Heritage Act.
Tecklenburg said the History Commission is the most sensible group to come up with what language to add to the Calhoun monument and the others he specified.
"We have some really talented historians here on the commission," he said. "It might be a little different, but I believe it will be organic, and the initiative will come from both the city and commission members."
The Calhoun statue, at 115 feet, is one of the tallest in the state. The plaque in front of it says Calhoun's name, birth and death dates, and the phrase, "Truth, Justice and the Constitution."
A new plaque at that monument might explain how the former vice president advocated for the institution of slavery and justified how states have the legal right to secede. Though he died before the Civil War began, his writings helped inspire the creation of the Confederacy.
Greene said people want to see more of his biography displayed there, and that it's also going to be important to explain why the monument was erected roughly 40 years after Calhoun's death.
"It's an enormous story," he said.