371st statue

A mockup of a statue commemorating the 371st Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit with many South Carolinians who fought in World War I, proposed for the S.C. Statehouse grounds. 

COLUMBIA — Historian Sonya Grantham wants a statue on Statehouse grounds honoring an African-American World War I infantry unit that includes a Medal of Honor recipient, but she must overcome a stringent state law that makes adding or removing monuments from public buildings almost impossible.

Even legislators trying to honor the accomplishments of African-Americans have faced the obstacle of the Heritage Act. A bill by two state senators last year to erect a statue for Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Civil War hero and congressman, did not even receive a hearing.

The grounds around South Carolina's Statehouse feature more than 30 monuments, including three honoring the Confederacy. But only one commemorates African-Americans, hundreds of whom will gather at the Statehouse on Monday for the NAACP's annual King Day at the Dome rally. 

Grantham and others say it is time to change who gets recognized at one of the state's most important sites.

“We have so many people that have been left out and undocumented, especially black people,” said Grantham, whose grandfather was part of the 371st Regiment that she wants to honor at the Statehouse. 

Largely composed of South Carolinians, the 371st Regiment was the only African-American regiment from the South during World War I. After fighting in the French Champagne offensive in 1918, many in the 371st were awarded high honors by the U.S. and French governments.

Freddie Stowers, a corporal in the unit from the Anderson County community of Sandy Springs, was awarded the Medal of Honor after he was killed in France while leading his men in attacking a German trench.

“A monument shouldn’t even be an issue,” said Grantham, a 56-year-old Columbia native.

371st plaque

A plaque for 371st Infantry Regiment, an African-American unit that fought in World War I, proposed for a monument at the S.C. Statehouse.

But the 18-year-old Heritage Act requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the General Assembly to add or remove historical markers on public land.

It's rare changes are made, though lawmakers had enough votes to overcome the law in removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds after the 2015 Charleston church massacre and adding the name of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond's daughter to his statue.

“With the Heritage Act, there’s a process that takes a considerable amount of steps for things like this,” said state Sen. Greg Gregory, a Republican from Lancaster who introduced the Robert Smalls monument legislation last year. 

Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said lawmakers face a tough choice on requests to add monuments.

"No matter how good the intentions — where do you start and when do you stop?" said Peeler, who heads a committee that oversee the Statehouse grounds.

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State Rep. Leon Howard, a black Democrat from Columbia, said the 371st Infantry Regiment statue would provide a much-needed spotlight on history that is often overlooked in South Carolina. He supports moving Confederate monuments to “more appropriate locations,” such as museums. 

“Monuments already standing have had their time,” Howard said. “We deserve to tell the truth about our state, and monuments like the 371st Infantry Regiment (monument) have never been on display here.”

Approving the statue also would show that the Legislature can correct history without a major tragedy like the Emanuel AME church shootings.

"It's terrible that it took that kind of pain to make people's hearts soften," Howard said. "Now, there's a different mindset I think."

S.C. Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a white Republican representing Columbia who is working with Grantham on the 371st monument, remains hopeful that lawmakers will see the significance of honoring the regiment's accomplishments. Finlay said the proposed monument is in keeping with his belief that adding more monuments, rather than taking away ones considered controversial, is more effective in fully representing the state’s history.

"I said to her that it may be a little bit of a slog," he said. "We're government and we do not move quickly, but we'll get this done. These brave soldiers need to be remembered. ... I struggle to understand how anybody would be opposed to this.”

Grantham said she is settling in to fight for her monument, which follows her work over the last decade to restore the Child’s Cemetery, a cemetery just outside of Columbia where many 371st Infantry Regiment soldiers are buried.

“My work with the 371st regiment is a labor of love and compassion,” Grantham said. “It’s not to the point where we want it to be at this time, but with hard work and effort it will be done.”

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