By Robert R. Macdonald
The Charleston History Commission’s effort to formulate wording for a plaque intended to place the monument to John C. Calhoun on Marion Square in historical context is comparable to placing a band-aid on a cancerous lesion. The wound here is the landscape of memory presenting a mythical Charleston past almost totally bereft of African Americans. If your knowledge of Charleston’s history came solely from what you heard on guided tours or saw preserved and honored in the City’s cultural landscape, you would not know that Africans and African Americans had a central role in the city’s history. What one does see and learn about are totems of wealth and privilege detached from those who made them possible, the enslaved Africans and African Americans who worked and died in the Lowcountry’s rice and cotton slave labor camps euphemistically called plantations. Black sweat and blood made antebellum Charleston one of the richest communities in the world. The absence of African Americans in Charleston’s memory recalls the words of Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, the French American writer who was an early observer of the new nation born of the American Revolution. In his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer he wrote,
While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles-Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, her, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till. The cracks of the whip urging these miserable beings to excessive labour, are far too distant from the gay Capital to be heard.
The absence of African Americans in Charleston’s landscape of memory did not occur by happenstance.
In 1924 the then Charleston Mayor Thomas P. Stoney coined the phrase, Charleston: America’s Most Historic City. It was part of an effort to help the struggling Charleston economy, that had yet to recover from the Civil War, develop a tourist industry. The slogan later appeared on a billboard that greeted visitors as they entered the city from the north on the old Cooper River Bridge. Fortuitously, the post-Civil War economic stagnation prevented Charleston from tearing down the old, run-down mansions South of Broad and redeveloping the city’s historic neighborhoods. Efforts by such groups as The Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation fostered the restoration of antebellum mansions and other historic houses. Neighborhoods were rehabilitated, gardens and plantations prettied up, and carriage and walking tours created to tell a romanticized tale of a simpler time. New hotels sprung up; restaurants opened, historic houses turned into Bed & Breakfasts. Charleston’s “revival” was accompanied by a dramatic shift in the city’s demographics. Wealthy absentee owners and young, white urban professionals replaced African Americans who could no longer afford the increased taxes. The displaced moved to the Charleston’s suburbs where they found affordable housing and lower taxes.
Charleston’s transformation continues today as African American neighborhoods north of Calhoun Street become the site of new restaurants, bars, hotels, and upscale apartments, and condominiums. Gentrification has resulted in the African American population, once a majority of the town’s citizens, becoming a minority. As recently as 1980 two thirds of Charleston’s population was African American. In 2016 the percentage of blacks in Charleston had declined to 22.4 percent of the population.
Gentrification of the Charleston’s history accompanied the physical and demographic transformation. Since Mayor Stoney made his pronouncement in 1924, a fabricated landscape of memory fashioned a romantic “Gone with the Wind” tableau of an idyllic, genteel town where “the living was easy.” Historian Stephanie E. Yuhl describes the result as A GoldenHaze of Memory. Reinforcing the miasmas are the Jim Crow era monuments erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries affirming the “redemption” of Charleston and South Carolina and the implicit restoration of white supremacy.
The most famous of these Jim Crow monuments is Marion Square’s memorial to John C. Calhoun. But Calhoun is only one among many. Marion Square is also the site of an obelisk to Wade Hampton, the Confederate General elected South Carolina Governor in 1876 with the help of the “Red Shirts,” South Carolina’s version of the Ku, Klux Klan. The Red Shirts terrorized South Carlina blacks and murdered more than one hundred suppressing the black vote that led to Hampton’s election. It was Governor Hampton, “The Redeemer,” that initiated the restitution of white supremacy culminating in the 1895 South Carolina Constitution disenfranchising blacks and opening the gates to segregation and Jim Crow.
Between 1879 and 1932 nine monuments were erected in Charleston to honor the Confederacy and its heroes. Besides Marion Square, these shrines are found in White Point Garden, Magnolia Cemetery, and Washington Square Park adjacent to Charleston’s City Hall. Not limited to erecting monuments, in 1904 the City Council renamed the Washington Race Course, which had served as a Confederate prison for Union POWs, Hampton Park. The most recent monument to the Confederacy was erected in 1932 when the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a shrine to the “Confederate Defenders of Charleston” in White Point Garden. Then there is the H.L Hunley, the Confederate submarine that sank the Union blockade ship, the Housatonic, in 1864. The Hunley, which also sank in its attack, was resurrected from Charleston Harbor in 1995 and is being preserved as a Confederate icon by the State of South Carolina at the cost of millions of dollars.
Except for the monument to Denmark Vesey, who planned a slave revolt in 1822, there are few substantial memorials in Charleston recognizing African Americans and their role in the city’s history. Ironically the Vesey monument, which took twenty years to accomplish, was placed in a hidden grove in Hampton Park after being rejected for placement in Marion Square
So, how should Charleston redress the skewed memory of its past that has for the most part excluded African Americans? It will take more than a band-aid of plaques or even a virtual walking tour. It will require the creation of new monuments and renaming opportunities that will acknowledge overlooked and essential parts of Charleston’s history.
As a consultant to the International African American Museum, I recommended a Monument to African Ancestors for Gadsden’s Wharf, the last and most important entrepot for the arrival and sale of enslaved Africans in North America. There should also be a monument to the famed Massachusetts 54 Regiment of Colored Troops many of whom died attacking the Confederate Ft. Wagner on the Harbor and who formed a major contingent of the Union Army that occupied Charleston following the Confederate surrender of the city on February 18, 1865. What about a monument to the workers of the Cigar Factory who created the Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome when they struck for better wages in 1946? The courageous black women of the infamous 1969 Hospital Workers Strike deserve a monument as do the Civil Rights leaders Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins. The City should also returnHampton Park to its original name, Washington Race Course Park or Washington Park.
In my December 14, 2017, Post & Courier Op-Ed, I proposed what could be one of the most meaningful monuments in the United States, a memorial to the victims of white supremacy standing on Marion Square adjacent to the Calhoun Monument and Holocaust Memorial. There is possibly no place in America that has more emotional and physical links to how the ideology of white supremacy that Calhoun endorsed has plagued the country’s soul for more than three hundred years. The memorial would recognize and honor the thousands of African and African American men, women, and children who have suffered and died because of an ideology that views them as inferior to whites. The victims include those brought here in slave ships to work and die in slave labor camps that were engines of the young nation’s economy, the more than 4,000 African Americans lynched during the Jim Crow era, and the Emanuel Nine gunned down only a block from Marion Square.
Charleston has an opportunity to face the burden of history and the cancer of white supremacy by creating monuments that respond to a skewed fabricated history promoted for too long. The monuments I propose would be a source of learning for generations and encourage understanding and reconciliation that will advance American values. They would also be a model for the country as it continues to confront its past and heal old wounds.
Robert R. Macdonald
Director Emeritus, Museum of the City of New York
Vice Chair Emeritus, South Carolina Aquarium
Mt. Pleasant, SC