We’re pretty invested in our rich history here in South Carolina. We even have a state law that prohibits schools and state and local governments from removing or relocating any historic monuments or renaming any streets, buildings or other infrastructure named for “any historic figure or historic event.” The Heritage Act is so encompassing that monuments owned by nonprofits can’t be altered if they’re on public land.
The prohibition was passed in 2000 — as part of the law that relocated the Confederate flag from the dome of the Statehouse to a monument on the grounds — with the primary goal of preserving monuments to the Confederacy. It flows from the fact that a lot of people get upset about what they call rewriting or erasing history.
You’d think that if we feel that strongly about streets we’ll never drive on and monuments we didn’t even realize existed, we would be sensitive to efforts to tell the stories of history that are important to everyone. As long as they’re accurate, of course. After all, if we want to preserve history, wouldn’t we want to preserve everybody’s history?
As Charleston area historic sites have dramatically increased their interpretation of slavery in recent years, it's clear some visitors don't welcome the message. But historians at the site say their message won't change.
As The Post and Courier’s Robert Behre reports, Charleston historians are getting some pushback when they talk about the enslaved people who did the back-breaking work that made the Lowcountry the wealthiest region in antebellum America. Other historic areas across the South have gotten the same kind of response.
Historians and curators at Charleston-area historic sites acknowledge that they have dramatically increased the amount of time they spend talking about slavery and its vital role in the Lowcountry’s early history, in part because they have more research now about enslaved laborers. But they believe the objections also have a lot to do with the coarsening of our society, fueled by the anonymity of social media.
“People’s willingness to engage decently with other human beings is eroding year by year,” said Lauren Northup of the Historic Charleston Foundation. “What people think is reasonable to say to another human is in a profoundly different place now than it was two years ago.”
The good news is that only about 10 percent of visitors voice their objections to hearing a more complete and accurate story of our history. And, if only because visitors are more likely to visit historic sites than locals, we’d bet that most of them are from out of town and even out of state.
Those of us who truly care about history ought to welcome the fuller stories of our history, even if they make us uncomfortable.