City workers this week installed a historical marker to Robert Smalls on The Battery — for the second time in two months.
And if someone knocks it down again, they said they will put it back up.
Smalls, a slave in Confederate Charleston, commandeered the CSS Planter from a dock near The Battery in 1862 and sailed it to freedom with his family and a half-dozen other slaves onboard.
The voyage made national headlines during the Civil War when Smalls turned the ship over to the Union blockade squadron. The U.S. government made him its captain, the first African-American skipper of a U.S.-flagged ship. He later became a congressman representing South Carolina during Reconstruction.
The marker in front of the Historic Charleston Foundation was dedicated on the weekend of May 12-13, the 150th anniversary of Smalls’ history-making trip.
In mid-June the historical marker was found on the sidewalk, scratched and banged. No one knows what happened, but it didn’t look like an accident.
“All we can say is that it looks like vandalism,” said Michael Allen of the National Park Service.
Melissa Nelson, spokeswoman for the Historic Charleston Foundation, said no matter what happened to the sign, the important thing was to move fast to replace it.
“Commemorating such a milestone in Charleston history with a historical marker provides an important educational opportunity for residents and visitors,” Nelson said. “All the groups involved with this marker felt it was imperative to honor this and to work quickly towards its repair and re-installation.”
Charleston Parks employees were able to repair the sign and re-mount it, saving the $2,000 it would have cost to have a new marker made.
“As soon as he heard it was down, the mayor said we would do what we have to to get it back up,” said Dustin Clemens, construction projects manager for the Charleston Parks Department.
Engineers were able to re-weld and paint the sign and put it back, looking as good as new.
“We’ve had a ton of emails from people happy to see it back,” Clemens said.
Because the marker stands on a sidewalk far too high for cars to hit it, Clemens said all anyone can assume is that it was intentionally knocked down. It looked as if someone had rocked the signpost back and forth.
Clemens said the only way to deter vandalism is to keep putting it back up, which is exactly what historians wanted to hear.
“We have a lot of markers around the Lowcountry and they are all important to represent the American experience,” Allen said. “This marker is significant to remember Robert Smalls’ history, culture and legacy. It’s good that it’s back where it belongs.”