With a diamond band saw and a giant crane, a weary crew of workers Wednesday afternoon plucked the 12-foot-tall bronze statue of John C. Calhoun from its towering perch over Charleston’s Marion Square and lowered the divisive effigy to the ground amid a chorus of cheers and songs.
The removal took more than 17 hours, much longer than city officials expected.
The sculpture of Calhoun stood for nearly 124 years on a metal base, set like a puzzle piece into a hole cut out of the top of the stone column. The monument to the former vice president and fierce defender of slavery was thought to be set with a layer of epoxy that ran inches deep. A long metal lightning rod embedded in concrete ran through the column, from Calhoun's right shoe 115 feet to the ground.
All this made for a daunting cross section of granite, concrete, epoxy and metal that tested the saw's diamond-encrusted wire for hours.
Then, at 5 p.m., as the work crews made their final adjustments, a nearby church's bells chimed "Amazing Grace."
Seven minutes later, the crews finished slicing the pedestal and lifted the 6,000-pound statue. Tethered to the crane with heavy-duty straps, it swung through air thick with Southern humidity, cutting a stark shadow against the blue sky as it began a slow journey to the earth.
Cheers erupted from the crowd of several hundred people below.
In two minutes, the statue was on the ground, with Calhoun's stern demeanor looking even more imposing close up. Dozens of people, many waiting for hours for this moment in the baking sun, swarmed to the chain-link fence surrounding the monument.
They laughed, hugged, sang and took photos of the glowering statue laid low.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said moments later: “Like racism, he was deeply rooted in there.”
The removal happened nearly 23 hours after a unanimous City Council voted to send the Calhoun statue to a place of study and learning. It's unclear where. For the moment, it will be placed in storage, city officials said.
Tecklenburg watched the removal by a temporary fence. He accepted congratulations and posed for photos after the crane set the statue next to the monument's base.
"There had been a little anxiety during the day about how challenging this job had become," he acknowledged. Beyond the engineering challenges, Calhoun's removal should provide a deeper kind of relief and healing.
"The intellectual underpinnings of slavery and white supremacy came from this man. So there's a sense of relief — relief for the generations of Charlestonians who had these personal stories about the impact of Mr. Calhoun being here and being in such a supposed place of honor over our city."
Here for history
Many who watched the long removal process spoke about the statue's impact and how the city's action was deeply symbolic.
North Charleston resident Jason Crowley stood in the shadow of the nearby Walgreens building to escape the heat, his eyes trained on the work going on above him.
“This has been a symbol of hate since the day it was put up,” he said.
Crowley said he’d like to see the base of the entire structure stay and be topped with a statue of an African American who left an impact on the community, such as Septima Poinsette Clark, Esau Jenkins, Robert Smalls or Denmark Vesey.
“There are so many prominent African American figures who have left a legacy in this area that should be represented in a prominent location,” he said.
Cheryl Newman-Whaley was born in Charleston and is a fifth-generation Charleston native. Her grandfather was a carpenter who had to help clean statues when they were vandalized in the past.
“I’ve known my whole life who John C. Calhoun is,” she said. As a young Black girl she grew up looking up at the statue. And when she was older and brought her children out here, they would ask who that man was. “Of course, I told the truth,” she said.
She’s emotional about the statue coming down. She doesn’t feel a lot of pride. Thinking of Calhoun brings up thoughts about slavery and potentially how many of her ancestors were directly affected by him.
“I don’t know how many people I was blood-related to that was under his enslavement,” she said.
She understands people want to celebrate their history with the statue. “I embrace other people for embracing their history,” she said. But his involvement in hers is dark.
“He’s not going to be looking down on us anymore," she said. “I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.”
Robert Mayes remembers talking with the older people in his family about what the area surrounding that statue was like in the past.
“This was not an area you would want to be chilling at back then,” he said. “We couldn’t even go down that street,” he said pointing toward Calhoun Street, which runs past the square.
Mayes, a Black man, said it meant a great deal to see the city acknowledge the community's sentiments and remove the statue. That wouldn't have happened years ago, he said.
Cheryl Robertson, a Black woman new to the Charleston area, attributed the change to the protests sweeping the country over the death of George Floyd, killed last month after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Robertson had been in the park since 3 a.m. and was thinking about the lessons she had to teach her 17-year-old son to keep him safe as a young Black man.
“This right here,” she said while looking up at the statue. “It’s more than black and white ... it’s change”.
Mayes agreed. “It’s the beginning of a new time.”
Godfrey Gullahjac, a West Ashley resident, had been at the park since 7 p.m. Tuesday. He celebrated the taking down of the statute honoring a man he called “John C. Killhoun.”
“He earned his name,” Gullahjac said. “This is a great time for the Holy City.”
The spirit in the square was joyful, especially as crews finally finished cutting through the column. Crews had arrived just before midnight, and city officials had hoped that the statue would be on the ground by sunrise. But the statute proved to be as intractable as Calhoun, the man.
A long night
The crews, hired by the city for an as-yet undisclosed price, moved in under a heavy police presence. Fences lining the sidewalk around the monument were moved and a semi truck with masking tape covering its logos and license plate pulled up in front of the statue carrying wooden pallets. Behind it, workers escorted heavy machinery west down Calhoun Street.
Soon after, two workers in a basket of a lift inspected the base of the Calhoun statue about 12:50 a.m. and returned to the ground about 10 minutes later.
With a towering crane dangling a harness for the statue, workers in separate lifts positioned themselves alongside it just before 3 a.m.
They were met with applause from onlookers. Tamika Gadsden was with a small group that watched at the edge of the square.
“This is not a marker of progress for the city,” Gadsden said. “This is about resistance. This moment was about the uprising we saw across the country. We’re just happy that the mayor and the council came to the same conclusion as the people.”
The work continued through the night, as weary spectators anxiously awaited signs that the state was about to come down. But progress was slow. By dawn, the crowd had thinned and the contractors started breaking down the flood lights that illuminated the site. The sun rose just before 6:15 a.m. And Calhoun remained firmly ensconced on his pedestal.
To some, the statue's stubborn resistance to move was a metaphor for the difficulty of ridding systemic racism from this historic city, once the cradle of the slave trade. To others, it was a testament to the sturdy craftsmanship that has allowed the city and its institutions to endure. Either way, it was clear the removal would be far more difficult than anyone had envisioned.
Dawn Martin worked on a 2001 restoration project of the monument. She wasn't surprised that it was taking so long to remove.
She recalled being struck by the scale of the monument. Calhoun’s likeness stood so tall that she couldn’t reach its shoulder from its base when she and her team restored its metal exterior. They restored the mortar of the column foot by foot, gaining respect for its 115-foot height above Charleston.
In hindsight, Martin sees her work then in much the same way its sculptor did a century before. His name was J. Massey Rhind, and he was better known for his work portraying Union leaders; his work on Calhoun wasn’t guided by ideology, but a paycheck.
And she came to believe that no amount of historical context could provide a counterweight to the “extraordinarily tall” structure. Any plaque, no matter how honest about Calhoun’s legacy, would be overshadowed by his image looking down upon the city. "The scale of a plaque doesn’t properly speak to or address the scale of the monument.”
In that way, Martin says, it’s appropriate that Calhoun’s statue came down in daylight. Rather than quietly disappearing, it was removed with a crowd of onlookers ready to reconsider whose legacy the city seeks to honor.
Sunrise, and the statue remains
Calhoun was one of the most powerful men to hail from South Carolina in his day. He was a senator and vice president, but also owned a plantation, enslaved people and pointed South Carolina in the direction of secession, though he died in 1850, over a decade before the Civil War.
The statue was raised on June 27, 1896, and some felt it should remain as an iconic symbol of the city's history. But many others disagreed, contending Calhoun's legacy was more toxic than historic. The city eventually agreed. But as Wednesday wore on, its staying power was reinforced by the minute.
City officials had hoped the project would go quickly. But after nearly half a day on the job, at 1 p.m., the statue was still connected to the towering pedestal. One delay happened after a mechanical failure in one of the lifts.
A replacement lift was brought in, and a crew went to work again. They used a diamond band saw to cut through the bracket and pedestal. Another lift crew joined them on the other side.
By 1:30 p.m., the cutting crew had made it partially through a section of the pillar just below the statue. Workers had to stop several times to adjust the equipment.
Just after 2 p.m., the two lifts moved the crews away from the statue as the bells of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church rang. Police also moved in to get onlookers farther back from the barricades surrounding the monument.
But crews were back in the air a short time later, sawing away, stopping several times to work straps in and maintain the saw.
Complicating the effort all day, workers needed to cut through the mounting bracket because the column was filled with epoxy and concrete, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said.
People waited quietly, their faces pointed to the work above them.
Some left as the sun bore down and the air simmered with the muggy cloak of a June day in South Carolina. But many others hunkered down in the few shady spots that lined the open square. One of the people on hand placed signs along the fence surrounding the statue that read “Rename Calhoun Street,” “Abolish CPD & NCPD,” “Love Beats Hate” and “Take It Down.”
Pastor Bernard Brown, decked in a short-sleeved button-down shirt and black dress pants, has been at the park since 4:30 a.m.
Prepared for a long day, he had a folding chair and bottle of water. He left once to attend to his church, Jerusalem Baptist in North Charleston. But he had every intention of being there when the statue came down.
“Some things are just worthwhile being a part of,” he said.
Brown said he wants the base of the monument to be removed as well, unless it’s going to be used to honor African American people, such as the victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre five years ago. Nine black worshippers died in the mass shooting, when an avowed white supremacist opened fire during a Bible study at the church in June 2015.
Tony Simmons said watching the statue come down would help him grieve for Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, two relatives killed in the church shooting, which took place a block from Marion Square.
Seeing the statue come down would serve as a reminder of the pain he, his family and the greater Black community endure, Simmons said. It wouldn't fix everything, but the experience would be cathartic nonetheless.
“We want to watch it face to face," he said. "We don’t want to see it from the back.”
That happened just after 5 p.m.
Into the sky
The saw finally cut through the base, including the lightning rod and another rod by the statue's foot. A crane hoisted it higher into the sky as people cheered, and then slowly lowered it down. Some sang, "Na Na Na Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye."
People leaned against the chain link fence protecting the monument to get a look as work crews hosed the statue down and readied it for the flatbed truck that awaited it.
A middle-aged man snapped a quick photo, then chuckled to himself. "Goodbye, John," he muttered.
William Dudley Gregorie, recently appointed a co-chair of a committee examining racial disparities in the city, said he felt incredible watching workers try to take the statue down.
“Hopefully very soon hate won’t hover over our city anymore,” Gregorie said. “That icon is part of what we have to do as a city — deconstruct and reconstruct appropriately.”
Ashton Calloway, 17, of Charleston, said she looked forward to what was to come, early Wednesday, as crews still worked to take the monument down.
"After having this thing looming over me my entire life, as a person of color in 2020, I'm happy to see this symbol of slavery come down," Calloway said. "It just shows that we're being heard and that the people in power are on our side for once."
Calloway said she knows that bringing the statue down won't fix everything, but said it's a start to some much-needed racial reconciliation in Charleston.
And after weeks of witnessing protesters arrested on the streets of Charleston and around the nation, and seeing law enforcement deploy tear gas, pepper spray and other uses of force against people of color, Calloway said removing the Calhoun statue provided a much-needed moment of catharsis.
"It brings hope," Calloway said.
Even with the long wait, observers heralded it as a new day and new era in the city.
"We're living a moment in history," Deandre Taylor said. "We glorify (Calhoun) way too much. This day will never be forgotten."
Construction crews later loaded the statue onto a flatbed truck. Emmett Brown, 65, watched with his granddaughters: Auria Jordan, 15, and Ainsleigh Middleton, 8.
“This is a long time coming,” Auria said. “It felt good. It shouldn’t have taken this many years.”
Brown said he and his family are Charleston natives and have grown up in the statue’s shadow. They live just a few minutes away from Marion Square. As African Americans, Brown said, he and his granddaughters hope the statue coming down is a sign of better times to come.
“Just look at the diversity around us,” he said, gesturing to the crowd. “Look at the people. It’s a peaceful feeling.” Although rain clouds pushed in around in the skies above, Brown said he took the change in weather as a sign. “If the rain comes now it’s going to wash all the bad times and bad vibes away,” he said. “It’s a peaceful feeling.”
Later, an early evening thunderstorm pushed through, but then the sun poked through heavy clouds again. The crowd had mostly evaporated from Marion Square, as had the construction workers. By then, the truck — and the old statue now covered in brown tarps — had left the square for good.
Thomas Novelly, Sara Coello, Tony Bartelme, Glenn Smith, Thad Moore, Cleve O'Quinn and Jenna Schiferl contributed to this report.