Editor’s Note: Jon Hale is an education professor at the College of Charleston, and Robert T. Chase is a history professor at Stony Brook University, SUNY and the Former Public Historian Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture.
Jon Hale, Robert Chase: Charleston has chance to ecreate itself as model for how nation remembers history of slavery and oppression
Confederate memorials abound, but there are few commemorating struggle of slaves and heroic African-Americans resisters in Jim Crow, civil rights era
In the darkest hours before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert M. Smalls and seven enslaved crewman commandeered Charleston’s Confederate ship, the CSS Planter.
Smalls – camouflaged with a stolen captain’s uniform – brazenly steered the Planter carrying these slaves and their families past two Confederate checkpoints, including Fort Sumter. At the very height of the Civil War, Smalls outwitted his masters and the Confederacy to deliver himself and 17 enslaved African-Americans from slavery to freedom.
Smalls would go on to serve in the South Carolina State legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, where he founded the Republican Party of South Carolina and authored legislation that provided the first free public school system in South Carolina, which was segregated by custom and then law.
Despite this unbelievable escape narrative and his political importance to South Carolina, Charleston offered no commemorative statue or marker to Robert M. Smalls until two years ago. It is only recently that Charleston has begun to finally commemorate such historic African-American figures as Denmark Vesey or the civil rights protesters of the 1960s with statues, placards and small memorials.
Each of these markers interrupt Charleston’s traditional narrative of the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, where emblems, street names and statues celebrate a falsely constructed Southern past that presents slavery as tranquil amid picturesque slave plantations; where secession is not defined as treason but as a matter of states’ rights; and where Confederate service is seen as honorable even as it brought the nation to Civil War over slavery.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this ideological mythology propped up the notion of the Old South’s “white nobility” while simultaneously erecting the violent, Jim Crow-era “New South,” with its lynching, segregation and voter disenfranchisement.
It was this “lost cause” version of history that inspired Dylan Roof’s recent terrorist assassinations at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Indeed, Roof’s own manifesto placed history at the center of this conflict.
“Some people feel as though the South is beyond saving, that we have too many blacks here,” Roof wrote. “To this I say look at history.”
The AME church is but one site among many throughout the South that now reflects the struggle over memorializing Charleston’s historic landscape. South Carolina legislators have votee to remove the Confederate battle flag from state grounds. They could do more. Charleston could serve as a national model for how we, as a nation, remember and commemorate the painful story of racial oppression and black resistance.
To provide a public space for a counternarrative of black resistance, Charleston should erect a monument remembering slavery as a transatlantic genocide that pays homage to its victims and demonstrates that the city formally recognizes this painful history.
For example, the city was the nation’s largest slave port during the slave trade through which over 40% of all Africans that were brought to the United States in chains and bondage passed. Sullivan’s Island in Charleston served as the inverse and perverse of Ellis Island for thousands of enslaved Africans, introducing them not to freedom and opportunity, but to bondage and slave labor. But that island has no memorial to the slave trade and its profound significance to American history.
The city should erect a second monument commemorating black resistance to the racial oppression of both slavery and Jim Crow, as it is the home to a long history of the civil rights movement, including the Stono Rebellion of 1739, in which nearly 50 slaves began to attack local slave owners on their way to Spanish Florida, and, more recently, the home of the Briggs v. Elliot (1952) decision that served as one of the five court cases used in the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision.
The city should also rededicate itself to building an international African-American museum, which has been discussed by long-time mayor Joseph Riley.
The flag, of course, must go.
In 1861, the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, offered this foundational explanation of the Confederate cause: “Its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
It is important to remember that when South Carolina became the first state in the nation to fly the Confederate flag at its state capitol, it did so at the centennial of the start of the Civil War. But there was more than the commemoration of history on the minds of its political leaders.
It also was the height of “massive resistance,” where Southern political leaders and the Ku Klux Klan chose to openly and definitively resist racial integration and the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate schools. The Confederate flag is therefore as much, if not more, about resistance to civil rights than it is about heritage.
It is no surprise, then, that a CNN poll found that 57% of Americans viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage rather than as a symbol of racial oppression. Today’s embrace of the “lost cause” narrative obscures and even “forgets” the history of the flag as a 20th century symbol of political and state resistance to civil rights as well as the racial oppression and violence of the Jim Crow South.
It is time for Charleston to reconsider how it honors slavery’s staunchest advocates.
The city already retains markers and monuments that celebrate its slave-owning heritage. Indeed, the Emanuel AME church sits on Calhoun Street, named after John C. Calhoun, a staunch defender of slavery and secession. His statue rests on an 80-foot pedestal that stands near the site of the tragedy, and unidentified protesters recently spray painted “racist” at the foot of the statue.
Less than 2 miles south of the AME church lies the Confederate war memorial, erected in 1932 during the Great Depression at the cost of $100,000. The memorial stands in commemoration of the “defenders” of Charleston and Fort Sumter during the Civil War. Protesters have tagged this memorial too, painting “Black Lives Matter” at its base.
To interrupt this Confederate heritage, in 2013 the city dedicated a civil rights plaque at the King Street location of the historic Kress building – the segregated five-and-dime store once infamous for its exclusionary treatment of black patrons. It was the first site of the sit-in movement in Charleston in 1960.
The city also commissioned a statue of Denmark Vesey, one of the creators of the Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston’s historic Hampton Park in 2014. The dedication was years in the making, and controversial, because locals had dubbed Vesey – who was executed in 1822 for plotting to overthrow white slave owners – a “terrorist” and criminal.
What’s more, as the black population continues to be squeezed out of Charleston by rising home values and urban gentrification, the historical markers that commemorate the history of this community become all the more important.
Charleston should serve as a national model where slavery, Jim Crow, massive resistance and the struggle for civil rights become part of the public space in the ongoing conversation over race and equality in America.
Following the example of Robert Smalls seems appropriate. After his public service, Smalls returned to Beaufort, South Carolina, and purchased the home of his former owner. Here, Smalls supported the economic and educational development of the school system he helped create.
Likewise, over 150 years after Smalls’ feat, we, too, can reclaim the public space of Charleston and instill in our schools, at our public squares and on our streets the many sides of history.
As President Barack Obama powerfully reminded us during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney: “History can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – how to break the cycle.”
Erecting historical markers and memorials of both slavery and black resistance would be the first among many necessary steps in breaking the cycle of the past. Black lives and black history matters.