Sweetgrass Skyway hits a roadblock

The S.C. House wants to rename the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge the Sweetgrass Skyway, but the resolution to honor the area’s sweetgrass heritage faces some powerful opposition.

COLUMBIA — The S.C. House wants to rename the iconic cable-stayed structure that connects Mount Pleasant with Charleston as The Sweetgrass Skyway — a label that would honor the area’s African-American history.

But the bridge with panoramic views of the Holy City already has a name: the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge. It’s a name that comes with a storied, yet racially controversial history. Despite the Charleston legislators’ effort to re-engage the name debate, it’s a fight that state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, the powerful chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, doesn’t plan to rehash.

Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said the goal of a resolution that passed unanimously last week was to keep the Ravenel bridge name the same. The entire structure, though, would be renamed The Sweetgrass Skyway to honor those who weave the intricate sweetgrass baskets of their ancestors. Mount Pleasant’s history is tied up in the craft.

“The timing was right,” Gilliard said. “(The craft) is invaluable, especially to our young people, people of all creeds and colors. This is the craft that the enslaved people brought to this country.”

Gilliard said it wasn’t his intent to do away with the Ravenel name. But Grooms argues the way that resolutions work is the last paragraphs are the only ones that matter, because those are the policy statements of the Legislature. In Gilliard’s resolution, H. 3055, the resolution’s second-to-last paragraph says “The Sweetgrass Skyway would connect the City of Charleston to ... Mount Pleasant” without mention of the Ravenel name.

Grooms said that he helped push a 7-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant to be designated as the Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway. He sees Gilliard’s effort as unnecessary.

“I have fought hard to protect the cultural and historical aspects of Lowcountry life,” Grooms said.

The episode brings up controversy surrounding the original naming of the bridge. At the time, Ravenel was a South Carolina political fixture, serving over 30 years in a variety of positions, including the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

He ran for the state Senate in 1996 on a single issue: to raise money for the bridge to replace a failing one. After considerable politicking, it was approved and later named after Ravenel to give him credit for the singular effort.

However, during a pro-Confederate flag rally at the Statehouse in 2000, Ravenel called the NAACP “the National Association for Retarded People,” angering black lawmakers and causing some to question whether it was right to name the bridge after him.

Ravenel apologized to people with mental and physical conditions and said his mistake was that he mixed up his words because he was thinking of another meeting he was scheduled to attend.

The NAACP is not made up of retarded people, said Ravenel, but he remained defiant. “No apologies to the NAACP or the national NAACP,” he said.

Ravenel, 87, said in a telephone interview that his post-political career has been low-key. Ravenel said he’d like the name to stay the same but he’d rather not weigh in any further.

“I’m going to stay away from that, that’s a legislative matter,” he said. “I led the fight to find the money to build the bridge. I just thought it was very nice of them to do that.”

M. Jeannette Lee, who leads the Original Sweetgrass Marketplace Coalition, said she organizes the 200 or so families who continue to sell the sweetgrass baskets in Charleston’s market and elsewhere.

A new bridge name, she said, has the historical significance of a time when weaving such baskets was one of the few distractions from the life of a slave. She wants to ensure the memory stays alive — and can imagine few better ways than people looking at a sign proclaiming The Sweetgrass Skyway while waiting in traffic.

Like the baskets, the name would last forever. She has one of her great grandmother’s, made in 1929. “I don’t know her, but at least I have her baskets,” she said. “They last and they last.”

Grooms is just as adamant that the current name of the bridge should be permanent.

“The bill dies in the Senate Transportation Committee,” he said. “Once you name a structure in honor of someone, that designation should stay.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.