Capitol grounds also hold African-American History Monument

The African-American History Monument sits on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbia. (File/Staff)

An American flag rippled in the wind while its bearer, Leon Thomas, gazed upon a series of bronze and granite panels that curved around him on the Capitol Complex grounds.

The 64-year-old Columbia native was one of thousands who witnessed on Friday the lowering of the Confederate battle flag that had flown at the South Carolina Capitol for more than half a century. But the occasion also marked the first time that he paused to peruse the historic African-American History Monument perched nearby.

The monument was erected in 2001 as part of a compromise that saw the flag’s removal from the Capitol dome and placement on the grounds.

The monument’s sculptor, Ed Dwight, fashioned the panels to depict stages in black history: A man, woman and infant atop an auction block; a white slave trader beating an enchained African; soldiers marching to battle during the Civil War; the joys of Emancipation; the burdens of Black Codes and Jim Crow; and the will to overcome.

“I’m amazed by what I see,” said Thomas, a black man. “It’s an inspiration.”

As calls for the lowering of the battle flag heightened in recent weeks following the racially motivated slaying of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, some supporters of the flag responded by demanding the removal of the African-American Monument as well.

A petition for the monument’s removal on change.org contained nearly 24,000 signatures Saturday.

“It has been stated that the battle flag must be removed due to it being offensive to the African American community, and invoking upon that community reminders of the dark history of slavery,” the petition stated. “To the same point, the African American Monument depicts slave ships, mistreatment and words such as ‘segregation’ and ‘Jim Crow.’ This being the case, it is undeniable that this monument can and does serve to invoke in the white community feelings of shame, humiliation and offense, serving as a constant reminder of the dark history of slavery.”

Thomas rebuffed the notion.

Following that train of logic, he said, “wouldn’t it then be fair to take down all the other Confederate monuments as well? All things being fair, they all need to go. But that’s not necessary.”

For Thomas, the removal of the battle flag alone was enough.

“A lump got in my throat,” he said of the moment the flag began to drop. “Things are happening now that I never thought would happen. ... It shows that South Carolina is a great and enduring state where people can work together.”

Ronald Epps, a 70-year-old black man and retired superintendent in Richland County, also visited the African-American monument following the removal of the battle flag. He guided his son-in-law and two grandsons along the way, explaining the history in depth to the boys.

The experience was momentous for him. He had marched in the past to have the flag taken down and had come to question whether it ever would — even amid renewed calls following the shooting at Emanuel AME.

“Age has made me a little cynical,” Epps said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people have been killed over time in the name of that battle flag. So to think that nine could do what hundreds and thousands couldn’t — it would have taken a leap of faith in humanity that I didn’t have at the time.”

To see it come down was to witness history, Epps said.

“The flag was just one step in a long series of steps,” he said, eyeing the monument before him. His gaze broke with a glance back toward his grandsons.

“I wanted them to understand,” he said.

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.