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Proposed John C. Calhoun plaque in limbo after Charleston City Council can't see eye to eye on it

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The John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In Charleston, revising history is proving to be no simple task.

City Council couldn't decide Tuesday whether to approve or change the language for a proposed plaque in front of the towering John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square, opting to defer the issue altogether without agreeing on what to do next.

The city's Commission on History had developed the new text over the course of several meetings late last year under Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg's charge to add more context to the monument about Calhoun's role as an advocate for race-based slavery. 

Several City Council members said they hadn't formed enough of an opinion about the proposal to vote on it.

"I have mixed emotions," said Councilman Robert Mitchell, who made the motion to defer it. Council sided with him 11-2, with the two "no" votes from Councilmen William Dudley Gregorie and Keith Waring.

Council didn't discuss editing the language, although some seemed receptive to the idea of forming a new sub-committee to scrutinize it further.

"I would gladly participate in a side group that works with this," said Councilwoman Carol Jackson, who was sworn in earlier in the meeting after winning the District 12 seat in November. "I do think we need to have the responsibility on our shoulders."

It's unclear if that's where the plaque revision is headed. Council only agreed to defer it to a future meeting before closing the discussion to move onto other issues.

The Commission on History, a volunteer advisory board, also struggled to reach a decision about the plaque, mainly because it had never been tasked with drafting language to revise one. Typically, the citizens group edits and approves text submitted by outside groups that want to place new historical markers on public property.

The commission deliberated every line of the lengthy plaque, starting with a version drafted by commissioner, lawyer and historian Robert Rosen. It ultimately agreed on a version  that recognized Calhoun's prominent role in state and federal government, followed by an explanation of his commitment to the institution of slavery.

"I think you will see we are praising Calhoun and condemning Calhoun at the same time," commission chairman Harlan Greene said. 

A group of white men who share an interest in local history attended the City Council meeting together to voice their opposition the plaque. They argued that it included too many opinions about Calhoun's positions on race. 

"It should not be a pro-Calhoun statement or an anti-Calhoun statement, it should be a historical statement," Brett Barry said. 

Tecklenburg defended it.

"I thought it would be fair and appropriate to try to add some context to the history, to try to tell the full story... of what Mr. Calhoun believed in," he said. "You can’t please everyone and folks have different views and interpretations of history."

He explained that the state's Heritage Act makes it difficult for local governments to remove any Confederate monuments.

That state law was part of a compromise that removed the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse dome in 2000, and it forbids any other public removal of other flags or memorials from the Confederacy without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

That's why the mayor wants to add new information to the city's Confederate monuments, as well as to add new African-American monuments across the city to create a more balanced narrative of Charleston's history. 

Tecklenburg announced the proposal in August, as other cities across the country grappled with what to do about their Confederate relics in the wake of a white supremacist rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.