slave auction marker

A marker adjacent to the Old Exchange building mentions local slave trade history. 

The Post and Courier’s Opinion page has recently included debate about the Charleston City Council’s apology for our city’s past promotion of and economic profit from slavery. Many op-ed columnists and letter writers have noted that while no living Charlestonians owned slaves, the apology by the current elected City Council heirs of those who condoned and profited from slavery was appropriate.

I won’t repeat those arguments, but I do thank a recent letter writer for enabling me to address a related issue. That writer celebrated a recent news story about the latest United States warship to bear the name “Charleston,” noted that she’s the sixth U.S. Navy vessel to bear our city’s name and then described the CSS Charleston’s role in our city’s defense.

The CSS Charleston was appropriately omitted from the list of ships that sailed under the flag of the United States of America. She was a warship of the Confederate States of America. Her officers and crew — like those of the submarine CSS Hunley — were citizens of a nation at war. To associate that Confederate vessel with United States warships is like associating American World War II submarines with German U-boats.

I understand and acknowledge the writer’s intent, but it relates to a myth that’s been debated for more than 150 years and embraced by generations of white Southerners — the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause was born in the waning days of the Civil War, when it became evident that the Confederate States of America would lose the war. Its adherents and promoters emphasized the nobility, courage and honor of the Confederate military, and primarily attributed their defeat to overwhelming Union economic advantage and military strength.

They conveniently ignored the Ordinances of Secession passed by each Southern state — that plainly said slavery was the driving force for secession — and instead embraced tariffs, trade, states’ rights, freedom from federal regulation and “Northern invasion” as the causes of the war. They also painted an idyllic portrait of the antebellum South that included compliant, obedient and well-treated slaves while ignoring the kidnapping, brutalization, rape, murder and family division inflicted upon people of African descent who were held in bondage for economic benefit.

That “alternate reality” was taught to generations of schoolchildren and is still embraced today. That’s why the slave quarters of many historic Charleston homes are now described as “carriage houses,” why slaves are now called “servants” on many Charleston tours and why there’s scant mention of the slave artisans who built much of the city.

That’s why John C. Calhoun’s statue looks down on our city’s center and why finding Denmark Vesey’s secluded statue requires a “discovery hike” in a park named for Confederate General Wade Hampton.

That’s why most of those who cheer for the Citadel Bulldogs at Johnson Hagood Stadium don’t know that it’s named for a Confederate general who was so infuriated that Union Col. Robert Gould Shaw led black troops of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at the Battle of Morris Island — many of whom were former slaves — that he buried him after the regiment’s defeat in their mass grave instead of returning his remains to Boston.

Our City Council’s apology was an appropriate step on the journey toward a frank admission of grievous and sinful wrongdoing — as was our nation’s apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II because of their ethnicity, and as will hopefully be our nation’s eventual apology for the recent separation of Latino parents from their children in the name of “law and order.”

Charleston’s real work lies ahead in formulating tangible steps to back up the apology with restorative action. That’s needed in a time when hate crimes are on the rise and when Donald Trump panders to racists.

When we acknowledge and act to correct our city’s past racism — with an appreciation for objective history — and take positive steps to make things right, we can foster constructive dialogue and positive actions to make our city and state a better place for all citizens.

The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.