The statue of John C. Calhoun in Marion Square
Charleston's History Commission was thrust into the spotlight Wednesday evening as Mayor John Tecklenburg tasked the group with providing a more comprehensive look at how the city's monuments portray history's full story.
The group's special meeting began with the approval of a new historic marker commemorating the Dart Hall Library, a process that involved multiple revisions on the suggested wording aimed at summarizing the 90-year history of the first free public library for African Americans in Charleston. Commission chairman Harlan Greene and the rest of the board talked through every word down to the last comma, amending grammar and correcting facts along the way before finally approving the almost 900 characters to be displayed upon the plaque in perpetuity. With this careful approach in mind, the commission then received what may be their loftiest challenge to date.
As a part of a call to portray a more complete look at the city's history, Mayor Tecklenburg's first recommendation to the History Commission is that a plaque be erected at the John C. Calhoun statue in Marion Square, clearly outlining "his views on racism, slavery, and white supremacy."
Expanding upon this plan, the mayor also asks that additional markers be placed at other monuments throughout the city, such as the Wade Hampton monument, and an online component be incorporated to further explain the "historical significance of race, racism, slavery, and white supremacy with regard to city monuments, places, or buildings." Other suggestions from Tecklenburg include improving access to the Denmark Vesey monument, creating a "significant African-American monument" in White Point Gardens or Waterfront Park, and considering additional markers and memorials highlighting the contributions of civil and human rights leaders from Charleston's history.
"I think a lot of this could be done within a year and some of it may take longer, particularly the part where we think about adding new markers and memorials to parts of the story that have been left out," says Tecklenburg. "It's a little easier to first address the existing statues and memorials that are out there and make sure we add appropriate historical context and story behind those existing one. But also think about new memorials to those civil rights leaders and historic Charlestonians who have never been recognized and their story has never been fully told."
According to Tecklenburg, the idea of adding greater context to the city's monuments first came to him earlier this year while leading tours of out-of-state designers who were finalists in the process to create a proposed memorial at Emanuel AME Church. Guiding visitors through Marion Square, the mayor says he realized a more complete historical narrative was needed. Tecklenburg admits that the recent fatal attack on counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., broadened his perspective on what was needed in Charleston.
While many in Charleston have called for the complete removal of the Calhoun monument in Marion Square, South Carolina's Heritage Act stands in the way, requiring a two-thirds vote from the state General Assembly to remove or alter historic monuments. Tecklenburg doesn't believe the Heritage Act will pose a challenge to his plans to readdress the city's monuments and said that the final decision to remove the Calhoun statue was in the hands of state legislators.
Complicating matters further is the understanding that the Washington Light Infantry and Sumter Guards technically own Marion Square. City spokesman Jack O'Toole says the city legal department is working with the Washington Light Infantry to determine the specific property rights governing the memorial and the plot around it.
Asked for his opinion on the Heritage Act, Chairman Greene says he sees it as unfortunate that state lawmakers who aren't necessarily historians put themselves in charge of a speciality they don't quite possess, adding that "Historians should speak for history."
The History Commission took no immediate action on Tecklenburg's requests, instead tabling the issue until a later meeting after more consideration is given to the task at hand. Greene is confident that the commission can get a good start on the mayor's recommendations over the next year, but acknowledges that the process of readdressing 300 years of history will take considerable time and effort, hopefully evolving over future generations.
"The object remains the same, but the perception of the object changes over time. I think that's one thing that we can change," says Greene. "You can't change history, but our perceptions of history change over time, and I think that's a really valid lesson to learn is that that's what is incredibly fluid. We learn from our mistakes."