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Why Charleston's slavery apology barely passed City Council

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A marker adjacent to the Old Exchange building explains local slave trade history in Charleston. Matthew Fortner/Staff/File

When Charleston City Council voted to apologize for the city's centuries-long support for slavery, it signaled to many that the time had finally come for the community to confront its full, flawed origin story.

Almost every single person who spoke at Tuesday's meeting was in support of it. There were no protests outside to oppose it; no hateful signs or Confederate flags. 

And yet, council's decision was not unanimous. In fact, the resolution passed by a narrow margin, 7-5. Of the five councilmen who opposed it, most of them said it was because they couldn't apologize for something they weren't a part of.

Some said their constituents had been adamant that they didn't want the city to apologize. They didn't show up in person, but their voices were powerful enough to nearly defeat an effort to simply acknowledge that the enslavement of human beings was wrong.

That seemed to go against the notion that Charleston had entered a new era of racial reconciliation following the Emanuel AME tragedy three years ago.

There's been a notable uptick in the number of grassroots efforts to address racial biases and disparities throughout the community, more monuments and markers erected to memorialize African-American history.

But after Tuesday's vote, it raised the question: Are we really making progress?

Yes and no, according to historians and activists who focus on slavery and its lasting effects today.

"I don’t think City Council could have reached the point of having this discussion or the vote they took earlier this week without these other things happening over the years," said Michael Allen, a retired historian and National Park Service ranger who helped create the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor. 

He echoed what dozens of others said last week as they urged council to pass the resolution: Acknowledging the destruction of slavery is the gateway to address the oppressive, systemic racism that survives in our society today.

"We have to have that depth of conversation here in America if we’re ever going to get to the place that we should," Allen said.

Former City Councilman Henry Smythe, who is white, seemed to speak directly to those who were skeptical of the resolution.

"Why should we do it when so much of what we’d be apologizing for happened so long ago?" he said. "The reasoning is because the community we have now is the sum of everything that went on before. The community we have in the future will be added to that sum. It’s appropriate that we look back over to how we got to where we are."

There's plenty to work on. The State of Racial Disparities Report published last year uncovered the stark reality that income and educational gaps between white and black residents in Charleston County hadn't improved in 50 years.

For example, it showed that in 2015, the median income for black families in Charleston and North Charleston was $29,799, less than half the median income white families earned, $64,553.

Daron Lee Calhoun, Race and Social Justice Initiative coordinator with the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center, said City Council's hesitant apology for slavery makes him question if there will be any real work to address these systemic problems.

"Because I am a cynic, it’s going to take them doing something for me to trust them. They haven’t given me any reason to trust them," he said.

Carolyn Rivers, founder and director of The Sophia Institute, said she was impressed by Mayor John Tecklenburg's extensive appeal to council that night, when he recited scores of concrete examples in which the city regulated and profited from slavery.

“That specificity was extraordinary,” she said. “It’s kind of incomprehensible to have anyone vote against an apology once that information was shared.”

Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts, historians with California State University, recently published a nonfiction book about Charleston's slavery history, "Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy."

Roberts grew up in the South, and the two lived in Charleston for a time while researching for the book. 

Reached by phone Friday, they said they saw council's split on the slavery apology as part of an ideological struggle that's plagued the South for generations.

"We really see it as a battle of two memory traditions, one that white-washes the memory of slavery, and one that wants to remember slavery in an unvarnished way," Kytle said. "The 7-5 vote captures that this battle is still ongoing."

In the book, they explore the ways whites in Charleston avoided acknowledging the realities of slavery even as they profited from and perpetuated its existence. 

For instance, slaves were often referred to as servants. Slave traders called themselves auctioneers or brokers. Slave quarters were named carriage houses.

And that reluctance to confront the damage caused by slavery exists today.

"There are a remarkable number of people who are not fully aware of the reality of slavery," Kytle said. "They bought into the propaganda that white-washers have spread for the past 150 years: 'slave holders loved their slaves, they took care of them, they rarely broke up families, they rarely sexually abused their slaves.'"

In many cases, to shift that way of thinking is to change a sense of history and heritage.

"To talk openly about skeletons in their historical closet, to talk about slavery ... it’s a hurdle for them that they have difficulty getting over," Roberts said.

And for those who can clear that hurdle, yet another one awaits — the fear that confronting the facts will cost them something. 

That concept, too, has often been warped over generations of misinformation, Kytle said.

"Reparations don’t have to take the form of money. It can start with honesty and telling the truth," he said.

That's the direction the city seems to be heading in.

"We are struck by how much Charleston is becoming more forthright about confronting this part of its past," Roberts said.

Hannah Alani contributed to this report.

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

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