Chelsea Haines file photo
Vice President John C. Calhoun's statue looms over Marion Square
While their conversations may be rooted in the past, Charleston's History Commission is all too aware that their decisions will have a significant effect on the future of the city. Now, tasked by Mayor John Tecklenburg to reinterpret the legacy of John C. Calhoun, the board must walk a careful tightrope to translate the thoughts and actions of a man mired in racist beliefs in the modern day.
In August, Mayor Tecklenburg called on the Commission
on History to develop the language for a new plaque to be placed at the Calhoun monument in Marion Square. Following calls for the removal of the statue, the new marker is to depict a more complete picture of Calhoun, outlining "his views on racism, slavery, and white supremacy," according to the mayor.
A major proponent of slavery, Calhoun served as vice president from 1825-1832, serving under two presidents. His current statue in Marion Square was erected in 1896, replacing an earlier monument that began construction three years before the start of the Civil War. Wednesday, the commission reconvened to discuss the first draft of the Calhoun plaque, although at least one board member suggested doing away with the monument altogether.
"I don't think the city should be honoring that type of person at all," said commission member Wilmot Fraser, who ended the meeting by suggesting that Calhoun's statue be relocated to Magnolia Cemetery where "he can reside over those whose deaths he caused" — alluding to the Confederate soldiers buried there.
Looking over the proposed language for the new Calhoun marker, the commission's most major revision was choosing not to begin with a brief summary of Calhoun's accomplishments as a politician and political theorist and instead start off with a bit of context into what the Calhoun monument represents today.
Although the exact language is subject to change, the currently proposed opening paragraph reads, "This statue is a relic and a powerful reminder of the crime against humanity which was slavery, the folly of some political leaders, and the plague of racism. It remains standing today to remind us that white South Carolinians once viewed John C. Calhoun worthy of memorialization, even though his political career was defined by his support for race-based slavery."
Protesters rallied at the Calhoun monument recently to call for its removal
According to commission member Nicholas Butler, one key focus for the plaque is communicating to visitors that while many founding fathers viewed the enslavement of Africans as a "necessary evil," Calhoun viewed slavery as a positive. Commission chairman Harlan Greene said that including Calhoun's own words that the institution of slavery was "a positive good" will serve as a strong indictment of his beliefs.
Moving from an explanation of Calhoun's status among supporters of slavery to a brief summary of his role in the "Great Triumvirate" and the push for state's rights, the first draft of the plaque then tentatively concludes that "This monument was erected at a time when most white South Carolinians saw the Confederacy as a noble experiment based on its commitment to slavery; they believed in white rule and enacted legislation legalizing racial segregation. Such is the case with slavery, white supremacy, and racial segregation, all of which are rightly condemned as repugnant to modern American ideals and values and as evil and immoral."
The commission is set to meet again on Nov. 1 to discuss an updated draft of the language for the Calhoun marker. Members of the board made it clear during Wednesday's meeting that they are well aware that many would prefer to just see the Calhoun monument pulled down. They also know that under South Carolina's Heritage Act such an effort would never be allowed unless approved by a two-thirds vote from the state General Assembly. For now, the group is caught between the past and present, as well as the struggle over how the area's dark past should be communicated to future generations.
"This aberration of Calhoun presiding over Marion Square has existed for a long time ... To continue it in this stage of the country's development seems to be a great error," said Fraser at the end of Wednesday's meeting. "But we have an opportunity to make the necessary change."