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Fate of Meriwether Monument becoming clearer after Heritage Act ruling

The fate of North Augusta’s racially divisive Meriwether Monument is becoming clearer after the S.C. Supreme Court ruling regarding the Heritage Act on Sept. 23.

The court's unanimous ruling struck down the two-thirds General Assembly requirement to approve a move or name change of a historical monument and upheld the constitutionality of the state law which prevents anyone from removing or changing the historical name of a street or building without the state Legislature's permission. 

Now, any governments requesting changes to monuments must get a simple majority vote in each chamber.

The court case Jennifer Pinckney v. Harvey Peeler took a closer look at the largely ironclad Heritage Act which passed through the Statehouse in 2000. 

The Heritage Act came to the forefront following the racially motivated Mother Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston in 2015 and various Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Pinckney is the widow of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel AME church in Charleston who died in the 2015 attack.

Ownership of monument questioned

The Meriwether Monument, located in Calhoun Park near Lookaway Inn, was built in 1916. It was erected four decades after the Hamburg Massacre happened in 1876, during Reconstruction after the Civil War.

"The Hamburg Massacre ... was one of the most notable incidents of racial and political violence in S.C. during Reconstruction," according to S.C. Historical Marker 2-45 erected by the Heritage Council of North Augusta in 2010. "White Democrats across the state organized 'rifle clubs' to intimidate black and white Republicans during the gubernatorial election of 1876. Clashes between groups of armed men were frequent, in cases even including the militia. ..."

The monument memorializes Thomas McKie Meriwether, the sole white man who died in the Hamburg Massacre.

Seven black men also died in the Hamburg Massacre – Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips and Hampton Stephens, according to a historical marker located about a mile away from the Meriwether Monument.

The racially divisive wording on the monument paying tribute to Meriwether has prompted outcry from the community.

"In life he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal," reads part of the inscription on the monument.

The city created a committee in 2019 to gain community input and discuss the monument.

The monument also became a site for Black Lives Matter rallies during the summer of 2020 in North Augusta.

In October 2020, city attorney Kelly Zier sent a letter to the state Legislature asking about the ownership of the monument - asking specifically for clarification whether or not the monument belongs to the city or belongs to the state. 

“We asked whether (the state) claimed any ownership interest into the monument; and, you know, I will tell you I don’t think they are going to, and if you go back and read, it was presented to the city by the Legislature, so I think with that being done, that probably removed it from any ownership by (the state), but that is one of the questions we asked,” Zier said Wednesday.

S.C. Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, said Monday he was told by Statehouse attorneys that the monument was created in part with state money from former S.C. Rep. J.P. DeLaughter in 1914, prior to the Heritage Act’s creation. According to a North Augusta committee on the subject, private funds were also used, and the monument was dedicated on Feb. 16, 1916.

Hixon said he would need a formal request from the city of North Augusta to bring a bill to the S.C. Legislature for the removal of the monument and does not believe it would pass the simple majority vote.

“I don’t think it would pass. Not based on what I’ve talked on with some of my other House member friends,” Hixon said. “They are not interested in taking up the Heritage Act, and the lawsuit did settle the two-thirds vote; but the city would have to request or ask to request that the state do something with it or move it. It ain’t like you and me can go up there and do something with it. It ain’t mine; it ain’t yours. It belongs to the state.”

Hixon said that the city could add informational plaques to the property and it would not be in violation of the Heritage Act. To remove the monument with the Heritage Act, a bill must be introduced in the House or Senate chambers in Columbia.

"I’ve been told by the House attorneys that the monument was paid for by state dollars and it's on city land," Hixon said. "So, until the city of North Augusta writes me or Sen. (Tom) Young, because the two of us represent North Augusta, I can’t do anything until they make a request, and that is the way my attorneys up there tell me."

The General Assembly does not return to session in Columbia until January 2022, and the Legislature’s current priority is to finish redistricting, Hixon said.

North Augusta City Administrator Jim Clifford said the city is aware of the South Carolina Supreme Court decision, but a timeline for City Council discussion about the monument has not been set.

According to Zier, the City Council would need to decide the next steps involving the fate of the monument.

Zier anticipates a response from the state regarding the questions in the October 2020 letter since the Supreme Court case ruling has occurred. 

Local perspectives on monument

Many North Augustans feel as if the monument doesn’t fully represent the events of the Hamburg Massacre.

Local author and Black history researcher Wayne O’Bryant is one of the people spearheading these discussions.

“Being a historian, I don’t like to see history knocked down. It doesn’t have to be positive or negative, it can just be historical because of when it went there. It went there in 1916, so it's been there 100 years. Whether it was bad or good, it's become a part of history. But you can teach the monuments,” he said.

“... They can knock it down; it wouldn't bother me. It's just I would like to take it and do something positive at a site like that where some people may consider negative. So that is how I kind of came in,” O’Bryant added.

O’Bryant, who used his expertise on several committees for the city of North Augusta on the fate of the monument, would like to add context to the existing site.

“Whether it was by design, they wanted to tell a story that wasn’t true, because if you tell the true story, it would reveal what their purpose was in the first place. So they had to hide that, and that was the story that was passed down for a century and a half almost,” he said. “But we want accuracy. There’s a reason they wanted that story, but that’s history. Why did we decide to glorify this person? Why did we decide we wanted to accept this monument?”

Hixon agrees that context to the monument, which is located in a city park, could be beneficial.

“I love history, so no matter what you do, you can’t change history,” Hixon said. “But you can teach about history and teach about this in today’s times. So, I mean, those aren’t the perfect words up there on that monument; I don't’ like them. But you can train or teach other people this is what could have happened, and this is what should've happened in today's times.”

In January 2021, Carrsville, a nearby area in North Augusta, was recognized as an African American heritage district unanimously by North Augusta City Council. This was a response to the Calhoun Park committee’s recommendation.

Several historical markers and a stone naming all of the victims of the Hamburg Massacre, including Meriweather, are inscribed at the Carrsville site off Barton Road.

Solutions for the monument

Former North Augusta mayoral candidate Richard Adams also hopes to see a change with the monument. According to Adams, his canvassing during the campaign season said many North Augustans agree the monument should come down.

“Part of my platform when I ran for mayor was that I wanted to see a museum that showcased the city’s past, present and future,” Adams said. “... You can’t please everybody, but you got to do what is in the best interest of everybody; and, like I said, the general consensus was that people wanted to see it come down ... That’s what’s causing the most conflict is it doesn’t express the entire sentiment of what happened that day.”

However, O’Bryant raises concerns if the Meriwether Monument as it currently stands is within the reins of the Heritage Act. The monument memorializes the Hamburg Massacre, which was an event that took place after the Civil War during the Reconstruction era.

Section 10-1-165 of the law states, “No Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered.”

In addition, the South Carolina Attorney General’s office said citing previous lawsuit Hodges v. Rainey that the monument does not qualify as an African American history monument.

“Additionally, we don’t see any basis for concluding this is an ‘African-American historical monument,’” according to a 2020 letter from the S.C. Attorney General's office to Zier. “Although it was a significant event in the history of race relations in South Carolina, the monument omits any reference to the Black victims of the massacre.” 

Zier said the city owns the park and has the ability to add context through documents surrounding the monument.

“The Supreme Court decision answered some questions, but there are still a lot of questions still out there related to the monument,” Zier said Monday.

While the court answered some questions, the pathway to a solution could be considered controversial.

“There were a lot of questions, not for other monuments that might be controversial, it was just for that particular monument that wasn't erected in the events that were talked about,” O’Bryant said. “With this, it may make it easier if they were to remove it. Like I said, I was more in favor of putting other things at the site that would put everything in context and put some other positive things.”

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior Republican senator, said in a visit to Aiken in June 2020 that the statue needs to be removed lawfully.

“So that’s an example of a symbol that, basically, I don’t see how it fits in. I don’t see why we want to memorialize that event in 2020,” Graham said.

In the 2020 letter from the South Carolina Attorney General’s office to Zier discussing the monument, the AG's office would be in support of the monument's removal while also stating the office does not possess the “authority to determine whether the Heritage Act is applicable here.”

“Accordingly, it is our advice that North Augusta proceed directly to the General Assembly for relief from the offensive nature of this Monument,” the Attorney General’s office said in the letter. “This office supports and would applaud the General Assembly’s repeal of these statutes erecting the Meriweather Monument.”

The timeline surrounding the Meriwether Monument is still unknown.

“We are trying to fast track some things now, but I think it is best for the city and the face of the city and, hopefully, other North Augustans – the majority of them feel the same way,” O’Bryant said. “We want the city to have its best face forward, and if you don’t knock that down for the people that love it so much, well, it's still there.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Samantha Winn covers the city of North Augusta, with a focus on government and community oriented business. Follow her on Twitter: @samanthamwinn and on Facebook and Instagram: @swinnnews

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