flickr user Spencer Means
Charleston City Hall
The details of Charleston's difficult racial past came to a head during discussion of an official apology for slavery on behalf of the city at Tuesday night's City Council meeting.
In a packed Council chamber over the course of four hours, citizens and Council members spoke with conviction about the merits of passing a resolution
apologizing for "regulating, supporting and fostering slavery."
The resolution, which passed by a vote of 7-5, was spearheaded by District 6 member William Dudley Gregorie in partnership with the Sophia Institute's Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative
Early on Tuesday evening, about 20 citizens were sprawled on Washington Square, the small park next to City Hall, watching the meeting unfold in the packed chamber.
Gregorie quoted Faulkner as he spoke following the citizen participation period: "The past is never dead, it’s not even past."
"And what reminds us of that is what’s going on right now with brown children who are being torn from their parents and put in detention camps," he continued, likely referring to the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. "I hope you heard me, and it sounds familiar. Very familiar."
The vote comes in the midst of multiple celebrations — both positive and negative — surrounding the African-American community. Tuesday's meeting fell on the 153 year anniversary of slaves in Texas being told President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, a holiday celebrated as Juneteenth. This past Sunday, the nation mourned the 2015 killing of nine African-American parishioners by an avowed white supremacist at Mother Emanuel church in downtown Charleston.
"We hereby denounce and apologize for the wrongs committed against African-Americans by the institution of slavery and Jim Crow, with sincerest sympathies and regrets for the deprivation of life, human dignity and constitutional protections occasioned as a result thereof," the resolution reads.
The document highlights the importance of Charleston to the transatlantic slave trade.
Forty percent of enslaved Africans arrived to North America through the Holy City, and hundreds of thousands of African-Americans today can trace their ancestry to people who arrived here.
Mayor John Tecklenburg choked up as he went through a brief overview of the horrors imparted upon slaves in the city of Charleston, including a city-operated facility where slaveowners could pay to have their slaves punished for them. He said a trip to the city's Old Slave Mart helped refresh his memory about the city's role in slavery.
"The city earned a tax when a slave was bought or sold, when he was rented, and for the virtues of his existence," he said.
"We all enjoy the benefits every day of what enslaved people were compelled to produce when they built so much of the city of Charleston," said former College of Charleston president Alex Sanders. "An apology is the only meaningful way to acknowledge that undeniable truth. At the very least we can say we’re sorry. Unless of course you’re not sorry, you can let us know by your vote."
Councilman Keith Waring, who is black, said he would be voting against the resolution because it did not properly address the need for economic uplift for the black community.
He cited city rules that make it difficult for minority property owners to appeal Council to rezone their properties for commercial or residential use. He also decried the lack of African-American participation in the building of the International African American Museum, which is slated to open
at Gadsden's Wharf in 2020.
"Economic empowerment should be a part of it," he said. "Without that financial inclusion, I cannot support this resolution."
Dot Scott, the head of the Charleston NAACP, supported the apology in an interview with the City Paper
before the vote, but was skeptical that it would make any difference in the lives of those who continue to suffer from the legacy of slavery in Charleston.
"You can’t pay back for what has happened, there's not enough payment in the world, but what can you do going forward that goes beyond what you have been doing?" she asked. "If you walked up to me and you pushed me down or you injured me and said, 'Dot, I’m sorry,' I would know how sincere you are if you helped me to get up."
23-year old City Council member Harry Griffin, who was thanked by a citizen earlier during the meeting for his involvement in drafting the apology, later denounced any sort of endorsement and called the resolution "backwards."
"Instead of us saying where we're going, we should be talking about these actions first," he said. "I can honestly say that I don’t look at my comrades and see color, and I can say that with my heart."
Gregorie appeared to be taken aback by his colleague's new stance.
"I’m wondering whether or not I was being misled," he said. "The word 'denounced' came from you."
Council member Gary White was absent for the vote.
Wrapping up the lengthy discussion, Council member Mike Seekings recalled the time he found two slave badges — issued for owners to keep track of the slaves they hired out — under the foundation of his current house.
"I'm gonna vote for this resolution," he concluded after calling the discussion "high political theater." He urged everyone who had crammed into the Council chamber for the vote to stay for page 12 of the body's agenda, which features a first reading for an ordinance to strengthen workforce housing in the city.
"All right, we're gonna get back to business here," the mayor said as Council resumed for the night at 9:44 p.m.