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Commentary: Charleston's Confederate monuments are shades of gray

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The John C. Calhoun statue overlooks Marion Square Friday, Jan. 12, 2018 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

It is important that we continue to discuss our history and monuments, and I appreciate the op-ed written by Robert R. Macdonald on Jan. 2. Unfortunately, the op-ed, while motivated by noble sentiments, I am sure, divides our world into black and white instead of what it is, gray.

The author apparently threw all historical monuments he dislikes into his trash bin of “Confederate-linked monuments,” whatever that is. Somehow, the Calhoun monument, planning for which began in the early 1850s before the Civil War began, is a “Confederate monument.” Calhoun died in 1850, 10 years before secession. His funeral was the largest public event in Charleston’s history. The cornerstone for the first Calhoun Monument (no longer standing) was laid in 1858. The Civil War delayed construction of the monument, which was erected in 1887.

Interior Secretary Lucius Q. C. Lamar was the main speaker at the dedication, and he was a spokesman for sectional and racial reconciliation, not lauding the Confederacy. Indeed, John F. Kennedy included Lamar in “Profiles in Courage” for his stand for sectional reconciliation. (He defended the rights of blacks to vote.) Lamar talked about Calhoun’s intellectual and political accomplishments (vice president of the United States and a celebrated senator). “Slavery is dead,” Lamar said at the dedication. “Why reopen it today. Let it rest.”

That 1887 statue’s design proved very unpopular, and so a new statue was erected in 1896, without a dedication, much less any reference to white supremacy, Jim Crow, or the Confederacy. The statue actually emphasized “Calhoun as an American leader rather than the prophet of a Southern nation,” according to the historian Thomas J. Brown. The narrative relief panels on the statue depicted Calhoun as an American statesman.

To say that the 1896 Calhoun statue was part of a “Jim Crow” plot built to maintain white supremacy is simply not a fair or accurate account of its history, although it has the virtue of simplicity and righteous indignation. South Carolinians had, rightly or wrongly, idolized Calhoun as a national leader since the 1830s.

The same can be said about most of the other objects of Macdonald’s scorn. He claims poor William Gilmore Simms’ modest bust at White Point Garden is a “Confederate-linked monument” because Simms defended slavery and wrote a history of South Carolina in 1842 that reflected the racial prejudice of the era. But Simms was the most popular and beloved Southern novelist of the 1840s and 1850s, a fact Macdonald carefully omitted. He was never a Confederate soldier and died a broken man in 1870. The bust was erected to honor his literary achievements, not to uphold white supremacy.

Wade Hampton’s small obelisk at Marion Square and the naming of Hampton Park occurred after Hampton’s death in honor of his service as governor. Again, Hampton, a former Confederate general and slave owner, was a moderate in a turbulent, racially violent era and was remembered as a governor who sought peace between warring factions and the races. Indeed, as Walter Edgar wrote, Hampton called for racial harmony and fair play. He was replaced by truly virulent and violent racist leaders like Ben Tillman and Martin Gary. Hampton was certainly a white supremacist. But if this is the reason to take down monuments, then we must add George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Webster, Henry Clary, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to the list.

In fact, Charlestonians never erected monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson or even a grand monument to the Confederate Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who was charged with the defense of Charleston. (There is a modest monument in Washington Park.) There is no monument to the Confederacy in Charleston. The Washington Light Infantry obelisk in Washington Park, which Mr. Macdonald mocks, honors Charlestonians who were killed in the war. It is a sad, dignified monument to local sons, brothers and fathers who died in the war. One plaque reads, “At every board a vacant chair/ Fills with quick tears some tender eye/ … And we can only dimly guess/ What worlds of all this worlds’ distress/ What utter woe, despair and death/ Their fate has brought to many a hearth.” “They were of the very flower of this/ Ancient city, her young hopes and fair renown.” The description of defeat and death hardly sends a message of white supremacy. It is a monument erected by a defeated people to loss, grief and despair.

In 1932, Andrew Murray left a sum of money for a monument to the Defenders of Fort Sumter at The Battery. He also bequeathed substantial funds to build Murray Boulevard, Murray Vocational School and Mary Murray Boulevard, the circular drive around Hampton Park.

White supremacy and racial segregation had unjustly been in place in South Carolina since the early 1880s. There was no need to build a monument at The Battery in 1932 for any other reason than its stated purpose, to honor the ancestors of living Charlestonians who died defending their city. Had Murray not left the money, the statue would never have been built. It had no discernible political purpose at all.

The debate over monuments has had positive consequences. Today at The Battery, we honor Robert Smalls, the first African-American hero of the Civil War, and the Massachusetts 54th, the African-American regiment that famously charged Battery Wagner and is depicted in the movie “Glory” starring Denzel Washington. We built a monument to Denmark Vesey, the leader of a slave revolt in Charleston in 1822. Signs and plaques today describe feminists, civil rights activists and African-American leaders. Clearly, Charleston needs to continue to better memorialize African-American heroes of our past and add to our historical landscape.

The solution to the monument issue is to recognize the history of all those affected by prejudice and intolerance. There is plenty of room in Charleston to recognize those who fought against the Confederacy, slavery, racism, and segregation. The International African American Museum is a powerful statement by modern-day Charlestonians about rectifying Charleston’s failure to tell the story of African-Americans and their critical contributions to our history. Our goal, like Sen. Lamar’s, should be reconciliation — additions to our history and historic landscape, not subtraction.

Robert N. Rosen is the author of “A Short History of Charleston” and former chairman of the Charleston History Commission.

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