Robert Smalls statue announcement

Michael Moore, president of the International African American Museum, speaks during a news conference Wednesday on a proposal to add a monument of his great-great grandfather of Robert Smalls at the South Carolina Statehouse. The monument was proposed by state Sens. Greg Gregory, left, and Darrell Jackson, second from right. Cate Lineberry, far right, wrote a Smalls biography.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina senators backing a new Statehouse monument for Civil War figure Robert Smalls say they have no interest in removing statues honoring the Confederacy or white supremacists, although they back efforts to add context to existing plaques.

Sens. Greg Gregory, a white Republican from Lancaster, and Darrell Jackson, a black Democrat from Columbia, stressed that near-term, they want to focus efforts on erecting a statue to Smalls, a slave who escaped with his family on a stolen Confederate ship to become a Civil War hero and congressman. 

Their proposal walks a fine line, working to respect both sides of the Civil War debate where many remain proud of South Carolina being first state to secede from the Union but where racial wounds remain fresh with recent racially-charged violence, notably the 2015 Charleston church mass shooting.

South Carolina also is taking a different tact than other states by looking to add the first statue of a Reconstruction-era African-American champion rather than removing Confederate monuments, which has happened in at least 12 states.

"I think we can show other states how you can come together and build something up," Jackson told reporters Wednesday.

Jackson said he wants to make sure the 31 monuments and markers on or around the Statehouse grounds are more inclusive, a desire shared with the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was among the Charleston church shooting victims.

In approving the proposed Smalls statue, Jackson said state lawmakers would honor Pinckney, a pastor who represented the Beaufort area where Smalls was born. Pinckney also tried unsuccessfully to get a Statehouse monument for Smalls a decade ago.

Gregory, who was inspired to propose the statue after reading a Smalls biography over the summer, said there's a more complete story to tell on the Statehouse grounds.

"It's somewhat strange to celebrate defeat, something we seem to do in South Carolina and the South in general, over the Civil War," Gregory said. "I think we do it because we learned from it.

"Today, instead of thinking of toppling existing monuments, let's learn from them the faults and attributes of those people," he added. "But let's also erect additional monuments that further complete our past, like one to Robert Smalls."

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls. File

In May 1862, Smalls was able to captain the cotton steamer Planter out through Charleston Harbor, fooling Confederate sentries and delivering the vessel into Union hands.

Adding a monument on the 18-acre Statehouse grounds is not common. The last one, the Law Enforcement Monument, was erected 11 years ago.

The Smalls statue would be paid by private donors, the senators said. Jackson, whose great-great-great uncle joined Union forces, said he expects no problems in raising the money, especially from older African-Americans who would want to see another statue representing their history at the capitol.

An African American History Monument was erected in 2001 as part of the compromise to move the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse Dome to a spot next to the Confederate Monument outside the Statehouse. The Civil War banner was removed from the grounds all together in 2105 in the wake of the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanual AME Church by a white supremacist.

Calls for removing other monuments on the Statehouse grounds dedicated to the Confederacy or white supremacists, including former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Ben Tillman, arose after the shootings in 2015. Such calls resurfaced this year after violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., over removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Gregory said he's not a fan of the Tillman statue, but he does not want to take it down because that could create many more questions over what other monuments need to be removed. State law requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to remove or alter historical markers on public property.

Gregory and Jackson said they don't oppose adding context to plaques on Statehouse monuments, but they want to focus on erecting the Smalls statue.

"These are separate issues," Jackson said.

Robert Smalls statue announcement

Michael Moore, president of the International African American Museum, speaks to reporters Wednesday in the South Carolina Statehouse near a statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery advocate. Moore backed a proposal to add a monument on the Statehouse grounds of his great-great grandfather of Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and congressman. 

Michael Moore, president of the International African American Museum planned for Charleston, said he does not think statues need come down for one to erect one to his great-great grandfather.

"In and of itself, it is an important and meaningful act, and that's really what I choose to focus on," said Moore, who attended the formal announcement of the Statehouse on Wednesday.

Jackson said he sympathizes with people who may be upset that some statues, such as Tillman's and one of J. Marion Sims, the gynecology innovator who experimented on slaves, will remain at the Statehouse.

"Leaving some statues up will remind some of us of how far we've come," he said.

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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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