Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls. File

COLUMBIA — In response to the ongoing national debate over taking down Confederate monuments, a pair of state senators want to erect a statue on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds to Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and congressman. 

The statue of Smalls would help balance protests about some of the 31 monuments and markers on the Statehouse grounds that cannot be removed without a two-thirds votes by the House and Senate. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said he would not allow any votes to remove monuments from public grounds during his tenure after lawmakers banished the Confederate flag from the Statehouse in the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting.

Sens. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, and Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, said they are looking for a "positive way forward" by adding a historical monument rather than taking one away. Both senators are veterans of the debates that moved the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome in 2000 and from the grounds all together in 2015.

“At this time in history our communities, state and country need greater unity and less dissension,” Gregory said. “Removal of historical monuments in South Carolina will create less of the former and more of the latter.”

Jackson said the Statehouse should have monuments that "represents all of South Carolina's history."

"Erecting a monument to honor Robert Smalls, who was a heroic and dynamic South Carolinian, is a great step in that direction," Jackson said.

Calls have come in recent weeks to remove Statehouse monuments to Ben Tillman, a former governor and U.S. senator who was an avowed white supremacist, and Dr. J. Marion Sims, considered the father of gynecology who experimented on slaves. The Statehouse grounds also feature monuments to Confederate Women and Wade Hampton, a Confederate general who also became governor and a U.S. senator. 

Any new monument would need legislative approval to go on the Statehouse grounds. The senators also would be willing to have a Smalls monument in Charleston. The senators began chatting about the monument last week, said Gregory, who was inspired after reading a Smalls biography over the summer.

Smalls, a boat pilot who sailed ships from Charleston Harbor, escaped with his family in 1862 by commandeering a Confederate steamer. After fighting for the Union, Smalls was elected to the S.C. House and Senate where he pushed a civil rights bill before serving five terms in Congress where he advocated the integration of the armed forces and other racial equality measures.

The proposed monument on the Statehouse grounds is one of several tributes to Smalls that have unfolded since the 150th anniversary of his daring theft of the CSS Planter. The city of Charleston and local historians dedicated a historical marker to Smalls at the northern end of the High Battery. A separate plaque was installed in the city’s Waterfront Park. Meanwhile, some of Smalls’ furnishings and other artifacts are on display inside the Smithsonian’s new Museum of African American History and Culture.

A Smalls monument would join one for African-American history on the Statehouse grounds, erected as part of the compromise that moved the Confederate flag from the dome to a site in front of the Confederate Monument on Gervais Street.

Robert Behre contributed to this report.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain is Columbia Bureau Chief for The Post and Courier. He was editor of Free Times and was a reporter and editor at The State, The Charlotte Observer and The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News.

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