You are the owner of this article.
top story

One year after Charleston apologized for slavery, a broader conversation has begun

inside mayor tecklenburg slavery apology (copy)

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg speaks on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 in support of the resolution to formally apologize for the city's role in slavery. Council later voted to approve the resolution. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

A year after Charleston City Council narrowly voted to apologize for the city's role in slavery and the slave trade, members still disagree about whether it was a necessary move.

Meanwhile, Mayor John Tecklenburg said the city continues to look at its next steps, which include a new hire announced Thursday: Lawyer and Charleston native Amber Johnson will lead the city's new office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance.

The resolution recognized that in its early history, the city benefited from slavery as a port city; it also administered punishment to enslaved blacks bolstered by city ordinances. 

Tecklenburg pointed to a number of initiatives that he says shows the city is putting the resolution's words into action.

"It's more of a mindset and a commitment to the recognition of the importance of diversity, not just in our own organization but in our community at large," he said. "We're looking at everything from policing to housing to business and economic development, which admittedly is the hardest piece of the puzzle. We're doing things on all those fronts, and I feel good about it."

But others believe more should be done to address persistent racial disparity as state and national leaders and other institutions continue to debate over race relations, including hate crimes and reparations.

A 'somewhat revealing' vote

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who drafted the two-page resolution apologizing for slavery, said upon reflection of the first anniversary that the vote last year was "somewhat revealing." A group of Charleston residents, including the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative helped craft the apology document. The divided 7-5 vote showed different views on what should be done.

While the apology didn't receive council's full support, the vote to create a new staff position on racial reconciliation did.

Gregorie called that vote "a move forward and the conscious efforts of the city to make sure that we never forget what happened on the night of June 17, 2015, when nine black parishioners were shot and killed inside Emanual AME Church, also Gregorie's church.

Councilman Keith Waring, a year later, said he has no regrets regarding his vote against the apology, saying that he felt it was "a real big emotional play."

"I happen to be African American, and I really don't think my ancestors have anything to apologize for," Waring said. "They had nothing to do with the laws of slavery and the law of Jim Crow being enforced, so I compared that to an African American apologizing for slavery would be tantamount to Jewish people apologizing for the Holocaust."

Charleston Apologizes (copy)

Charleston City Council member William Dudley Gregorie raises his arms after council approved a resolution formally apologizing for the city's role in slavery. Brad Nettles/Staff

Waring said he would rather see the city allow zoning exceptions based on financial hardship: "If you're going to apologize for slavery and apologize for the ills of the Jim Crow era, why do we still let some of the vestiges stay in place?"

Councilman Bill Moody, who also voted no, said the issues that existed a year ago still exist today. He said he wasn't part of the city leadership when it taxed and punished enslaved African Americans and felt the city was "apologizing for something we didn't do."

"That apology is a worthless sentiment — it has no impact," Moody said. "I want to work on what's keeping us apart and driving us apart today."

Moody noted he supported the racial bias audit at the city's police department and efforts to build more affordable housing in recent years.

Reflecting on the apology vote, Gregorie said he felt it important that the city became a leader in the apology effort.

"Given the fact that our city is the seat of the Confederacy and over 40 percent of enslaved people came through here, we're setting an example and tone through this apology that will resonate throughout the state and perhaps at the national level," he said. 

A larger debate

Last week, for the first time, Congress held a 3½-hour hearing on whether to create a commission to address the lingering effects of slavery. It also would consider a "national apology" for the harm it has caused, The New York Times reported.

The proposed bill would authorize $12 million for a 13-member commission to study the effects of slavery and consider ideas for reparations, such as zero-interest loans for black homeowners, free college tuition, and new efforts to spur development of black-owned businesses.

In South Carolina, state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, has been pushing for about five years now on a state hate crime bill that would include statewide penalties for hate crimes, including protections for the homeless. South Carolina is one of five states without its own hate crimes law.

"When you look at things like racial disparity, we do have a race problem in this city and this state and in this country," he said. In the city, many black residents and businesses have been forced to move.

"We used to have more black businesses in the '60s and '70s than we do now," he said. "If you look at the history of Charleston and how people of color used to own their own restaurants, hotels — all sorts of businesses, it tells me that we're not being good stewards when it comes to keeping this business viable." 

people reading sign .jpg

A group of pedestrians stop to read a historic marker next to the Old Exchange Building on Thursday, June 13, 2019. The marker discusses slave auctions that occurred in Charleston during the 18th and 19th centuries. Mary Alston Herres/Staff

Meanwhile, colleges and universities are examining their own roles in slavery. The College of Charleston and The Citadel are among five South Carolina universities — and 40 nationwide — in the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium.

These institutions are asking questions like: Who built their campuses? Who endowed scholarships? Who paid for construction? How did they raise money, where did it come from? 

Bernard Powers, director of the College of Charleston's newly created Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, is researching the legacy of slavery not only at the college but also throughout the city.

Powers said the college has a pretty good idea that some of its funding in the late 18th century was generated through the sale of enslaved people, but also has learned that a building on campus in the late antebellum period was owned by a freed black woman.

"You can't tell where that building is now, so we want to create signage around the campus and the surrounding neighborhoods so we have this heritage trail that links to the college, the neighborhood and the city," he said.

At The Citadel, Dr. Felice Knight is researching its past and is expected to present her findings next year, spokesman Col. John Dorrian said. The school already has edited its "Guidon," a book for incoming freshmen, to more accurately reflect the Citadel's history.

"We have found that the institution did hold a number of slaves and that there were members of the institution that were part of the slave-owning class at that time," Dorrian said. "There is certainly evidence that slaves were held by members of the institution itself. ... What we want to do is we want to learn from the past and acknowledge it, teach it, understand it so we can all move forward."

In 2017, The Citadel won a $30,000 grant to begin its AAC&U Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center. The school also is taking part in the National Coalition Building Institution, which provides training on issues of race and navigating difficult conversations, fostering empathy and understanding. 

"There is no finish line to meaningful conversations about race and relations and our place in the community," Dorrian said. "This is something that is an ongoing dialogue and something that aligns well with principled leadership and what we expect of our cadets and faculty and staff and alumni."

Next steps 

Since the slavery apology, the city has passed its own hate crime law, Tecklenburg said, and he believes Charleston is the only city in the state to have taken that step. It's also halfway through a police audit examining the department's racial bias.

On Thursday, city leaders shared a brief update. Police Chief Luther Reynolds said since January, the department has hired 25 new officers, nearly half of whom were "non-white males" or "under-represented groups," Reynolds said. The department also recently created a new office of community-oriented policing. 

Later Thursday, the city also announced that Johnson had been hired as the city's first manager of its newly created office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance. Fifty-seven applied for the job.

Johnson, 36, graduated from Hampton University and got her law degree from Florida A&M University. She currently works for the South Carolina Legal Services, helping low-income clients with matters of consumer law, debt collection, bankruptcy, foreclosure and evictions. She starts her new job July 22. 

Charleston native Amber Johnson will lead the new office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance

The City of Charleston has hired Charleston native Amber Johnson, 36, to lead the new office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance. Amber Johnson/Provided

"It's going to be an opportunity to work on a lot of different things," she said Thursday. "I'm really interested in the recommendations that I can make and recognizing those promises in the apology."

In the short term, Johnson said she is going to evaluate the city's policies and regulations to try to identify any inequities. 

"In the long term, I want to eventually develop an advisory committee that will give me more insight into the needs and concerns of the community," she said. "Then, I want to develop a strategic plan for long-term action items like housing and employment."

Tecklenburg described Johnson as a "wonderfully talented lawyer," and Gregorie agreed, adding, "I think we'll have someone who can hold their own when it comes to challenging not just the city policy but any policies within the city that might not intentionally have a discriminatory impact."

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP chapter, said he appreciated the city's creation of an office of racial reconciliation, but that the city should do more to diversify its senior staff.

Darby said he wants to see the city come up with concrete ways to address affordable housing, pay equity and law enforcement issues. He said the City Council should call for the removal of the Calhoun Monument, create a walking tour similar to Columbia's Civil Rights walking tour and create initiatives to keep black college graduates in the city. 

Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott echoed Darby's concerns, noting the importance of focus on education, housing and law enforcement interactions. 

Gregorie said he'd like to create a commission with members from different organizations and community leaders who would identify areas in both government and the private sector that could and should be changed to promote fairness and equity.

For instance, Gregorie echoed Waring's concern over the city's zoning policies and said the city should examine them to see if challenging zoning variances is discriminatory.

"Oftentimes, you find minorities or people who are under-served don't have the kind of ability financially to properly represent themselves when it comes to making their argument for their variance request unlike developers and those with more money who hire representatives," Gregorie said. 

The future of the John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square, one of the tallest and most controversial in the state given Calhoun's writings about slavery, remains an unsettled issue. City Council rebuffed one effort to add a new plaque to it adding context about Calhoun's life. Gregorie said he thinks it should be relocated.

"I think our city has changed considerably, and I think it's time for us to start thinking about what are we going to do," he said. "That looms over our skyline right next to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial and the mouth of Mother Emanuel Way — there's so many contradictions there to me." 

Meanwhile, the city also is poised to add to the story. At its July meeting, City Council is expected to vote on a contract to build the long-planned International African American Museum. The building will be built atop part of Gadsden's Wharf, where many enslaved African people first stepped foot in North America.  

Former Mayor Joe Riley, who has led the effort to build the museum and who fought for better race relations during his four decades as mayor, said there has been a huge advancing in racial progress in Charleston. 

"I see it in the life of the community; it's personal and professional and community; it's a very different place than it was when I entered public life in 1968," he said. "It's very prideful where we are and where we're going."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Mikaela Porter at 843-937-5906. Follow her on Twitter @mikaelaporterPC. 

Mikaela Porter joined The Post and Courier in April 2019 and writes about the city of Charleston. Previously, Mikaela reported on breaking news, local government, school issues and community happenings for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News