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Marion Square owners oppose moving Calhoun Monument, others say it's not far enough

9 people arrested in vandalism of structure after city's announcement

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Calhoun monument cleaning

Crews work to remove graffiti from the Calhoun monument on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Charleston. Glenn Smith/Staff

On the day after the city of Charleston resolved to remove the statue of John C. Calhoun that towers over Marion Square, the park's owners said they were against the decision but city leaders gave them an "ultimatum" — it was going to happen.

Those who want the statue removed also grew frustrated, saying a planned relocation doesn't go far enough. Mayor John Tecklenburg announced on Wednesday the Calhoun memorial would be moved to a museum or school, and officials said it would happen "expeditiously."

The board of officers for the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guard, which owns Marion Square, told The Post and Courier on Thursday that they oppose moving the statue but have no say in the decision.

"The city told us what they were going to do," said the board's chairman, Carl Beckmann. "It was 'take it or leave it,' an ultimatum."

He said the board's position is that "you can't change history and you can't erase it." The board has owned Marion Square since 1832, when it was deeded the land to use as a public park. The city maintains the park, but does not have an ownership stake. Likewise, the board does not own the monument, which was deeded to City Council in 1898 by the Ladies' Calhoun Monument Association. 

"Mayor Tecklenburg met with representatives from the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guard on Monday to respectfully let them know that City Council will be considering relocation of the statue at their meeting next Tuesday night," city spokesman Jack O'Toole said.

"The city appreciates both organizations' historic commitment to ensuring that Marion Square remains one of the finest public squares in the nation, and looks forward to continuing our longtime partnership in those efforts," he said.

In Wednesday's announcement, Tecklenburg said City Council has the full authority to order the monument's relocation.

Those who campaigned for the statue to come down said they feel the decision to relocate it to an educational setting, such as a museum, isn't enough. 

When Tecklenburg announced its removal, cheers followed, but some in the crowd booed and shouted “No relocation!” and “Throw the statue away!”

After the mayor's announcement ended, a large group surrounded the base of the monument. Some linked arms as a protective barrier while others climbed the monument's base to spray paint it and leave signs that read, "Take it down!" and "Black Lives Matter."

Marion Square temporarily closed until Thursday morning due to the vandalism. Charleston police said Thursday that nine people, including two juveniles, were arrested and charged with damage to personal property.

On Thursday morning, police were still stationed around the park and the memorial as city workers cleaned the the monument.

Activist Tamika Gadsden told the crowd on Wednesday that the statue wasn’t the first — that it was replaced and mounted higher when black Charlestonians tore it down years ago. A much shorter monument built in 1887 was replaced by the 115-foot structure in 1896 after repeated vandalism.

“Our ancestors demolished this,” she said. “Black people brought this down.”

She was angry that the city chose Wednesday to announce their plans to remove the monument, the same day as the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.

Gadsden said she’s had enough with “political pageantry” and that relocating the statue wouldn’t cut it.

She said Denmark Vesey, an executed black leader accused of fomenting a rebellion among enslaved people in 1822, should be honored there instead. 

During the city's announcement, many in the audience said that renaming Calhoun Street should be the next step. Renaming the street would violate the Heritage Act, a law created in 2000 that forbids removing or changing any war monument or memorial that is on public property. It also prohibits renaming or rededicating public property, including bridges, streets, parks or structures, honoring a historic figure or event.

Changing anything covered by the law requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. A few lawmakers are working to repeal the law, which many view as unconstitutional.

A legal review by the city deemed the Calhoun Monument as exempt from the law, as the statue is owned by the city, lies on private property and is not connected to a war.

There was no word Thursday on whether Attorney General Alan Wilson would sue to block Charleston's plans to take down the statue. But an Upstate Republican has sought a legal opinion from the attorney general's office on whether the Heritage Act itself is constitutional.

Rep. Mike Burns, R-Taylors, made the request after some lawmakers who support removing statues and changing the names of buildings at public colleges have said they don't believe the 2000 compromise is constitutional anyway and wouldn't survive a legal challenge.

The office's non-binding opinion could come out next week.

Calhoun was vice president under presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He advocated for slavery as a “positive good” and died in 1850, over a decade before the Civil War began.

Members of the city's newly formed Diversity and Reconciliation Commission said Wednesday they will review similar monuments in the city and make recommendations to the council.

Mikaela Porter and Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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