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A year after deferral, still no movement on Calhoun monument plaque

'Monuments Aren't History'

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In former Soviet states, public monuments to communism and its leaders have been relegated to spaces where visitors can peruse the relics in context.

Some of the sculptures are worn or damaged from having been torn down by angry citizens or sequestered by governments shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

At Grūtas Park near Druskininkai, Lithuania, adults can marvel at 86 works representing figures such as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin for an entrance fee of €7.50. Children, on the other hand, can have their own fun at the on-site zoo and playground. The privately-owned park is still a source of controversy, but the attraction doesn't mince words when it comes to its goals.

The exposition aims for locals and visitors "to see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades," according to the park's website.

Memento Park in Budapest, Hungary and Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, Russia, which is home to a towering statue of a nose-less Stalin, are similar endeavors by countries that chose not to immortalize those responsible for brutish violence and subjugation against their own people.

In August 2017, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg asked the city's History Commission to look into adding a plaque to a downtown monument of John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and U.S. senator from South Carolina. In Tecklenburg's words, he wanted language that would outline the statesman's "views on racism, slavery, and white supremacy." The issue drew interest from residents on both sides of the aisle. City Council members debated making changes and, later, carefully parsed the proposed language for a contextual plaque to be placed alongside the monument.

Tecklenburg's recommendation was eventually deferred on Jan. 23, 2018, with the mayor reading a letter advising Council to create a "city-sponsored and monitored action initiative" to study the issue while putting it off for a year.

"Deferring would NOT mean forgetting," read the letter written by Citadel history professor Millicent Brown and civil rights attorney Armand Derfner.

It's been over a year since the issue was last discussed by city leaders. A city-sponsored initiative was never created, and the monument to the man who called slavery "a positive good" still towers above Marion Square — a block away from where a white supremacist murdered nine churchgoers at Mother Emanuel — where thousands of people will linger in the Culinary Village at this week's Wine + Food Festival.

In a statement to City Paper, city spokesman Jack O'Toole said Tecklenburg plans on ordering the city's new Office of Diversity, Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance "to begin conferring with citizens and community leaders on possible paths forward on this issue, and hopes to bring their findings to City Council when that work is complete." The office, a product of last summer's slavery apology resolution, will begin its work in July.

Council members Keith Waring, William Dudley Gregorie, and Robert Mitchell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"Monuments aren't history"

"It's not that surprising," says Adam Domby, a history professor at the College of Charleston whose upcoming book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, explores the ties between monuments and white supremacy. "You have two different versions of the past that are fundamentally in conflict with each other."

Dr. Adam Domby - RUSSELL ZIMMERMAN
  • Russell Zimmerman
  • Dr. Adam Domby

He says the compromise language drafted by the city's History Commission is not going to work in a city where some would like to see the monument intact while others would like to see it completely removed, as some black members of City Council told the Post & Courier.

"There is a fundamental disagreement on whether Calhoun is someone to celebrate or revile," Domby says.

At the heart of the issue is an argument about what is history versus propaganda. Many who support the monument's preservation point to the fact that it has been there for a long time, and that Calhoun is an indelible part of the state's history that deserves recognition.

Sarah Beetham, a lecturer in American art and material culture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, points out that a lot of controversial monuments are inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art. In the end, they represent the people and causes that builders want to celebrate.

"I would say that monuments aren't history," she says. "That's one thing to keep in mind from the beginning. Monuments, by nature, have to be the most small-C conservative interpretation of anything that happens, because monuments are expensive. They're made out of bronze and granite and marble, which are all expensive materials that are difficult to work."

Sarah Beetham - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Sarah Beetham

Then there's the obvious fact that the monuments aren't that old to begin with. Many statues celebrating Confederate supporters, or otherwise controversial figures, were actually erected in the era of Jim Crow, when the statement they made was unmistakably political. Take the Calhoun monument, for example, which was first erected in 1887, 37 years after the death of its namesake and 22 years after the end of the Civil War.

"Every benefit which slavery conferred upon those subject to it: all the ameliorating and humanizing tendencies it introduced into the life of the African, all the elevating agencies which lifted him higher in the scale of rational and moral being, were the elements of the future and inevitable destruction of the system," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q. C. Lamar at the unveiling of the original Calhoun statue.

The monument was financed by the Ladies' Calhoun Monument Association. The first rendition was ridiculed soon after its unveiling, and the raised version that we see today was completed in 1896.

Erin Minnigan, the director of historic preservation at the Preservation Society of Charleston, says the organization has not taken an official stance on the monument.

"This is an important community conversation, and it's encouraging that Charleston is able to have these conversations in a productive, professional, and respectful manner," she said in a statement. "We are hopeful that this effort will yield some positive next steps soon."

"In some places, removal has worked"

Just a week after the Emanuel shooting in Charleston, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged the public to reconsider who should be officially memorialized. In May 2017, the city removed an 80-foot monument to Confederate commander Robert E. Lee from a traffic circle that also bears his name.

In Chapel Hill, N.C., the public didn't wait for action from leadership. In August of last year, protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood at the University of North Carolina since 1913. Its base and plaques were removed in January.

"The presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus poses a continuing threat both to the personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment," wrote UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt in the resignation letter she submitted in January. "No one learns at their best when they feel unsafe."

In Charleston, 13 public Confederate symbols remain standing, according to a count by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That includes the Confederate Defenders of Charleston monument at White Point Garden and a separate monument to Gen. Wade Hampton in Marion Square. It does not include the monument to Calhoun, who died before the rise of the Confederacy, but whose writings are thought to have partly inspired it.

Of course, the political reality of South Carolina, not to mention the likely cultural backlash in the first state to secede from the Union, makes removal all the more difficult. Thanks to the Heritage Act of 2000, the removal or alteration of any public monument requires a two-thirds vote from the state legislature.

Domby calls the act "undemocratic," especially because there was rarely, if ever, a formal process to put the monuments up in the first place.

"I think in some places removal has worked," he says. "I don't think we should say removal is a failed response because, ultimately, monuments are not about teaching history. Monuments are as much about the present as they are about the time they nominally commemorate."

Even if they're kept, the compromise of a plaque creates a secondary issue, one that may push the voices of people of color to the background.

"How do we contextualize these?" he asks. "And whose voice gets heard when you write this new inscription?"

In June 2018, the Independent Media Institute announced the creation of the Make It Right Project, an effort to remove Confederate monuments throughout the country by partnering with local activists, artists, historians, and media outlets. Of the 10 monuments they're targeting, Charleston's Calhoun monument is number five on their list.

Kali Holloway - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway, the director of the project, says she knows the fight will be difficult because of the Heritage Act, but she was encouraged by a recent ruling in the case of the Greenwood War Memorial.

The privately-owned memorial previously listed fallen servicemen from World War I and II and the Korean and Vietnam wars in sections labeled "white" and "colored." Last May, a circuit judge ruled that the Heritage Act could not stop the American Legion Post, which owns the memorial, from removing the racial distinctions, saying that such a prohibition would infringe on the organization's First Amendment right. (The Calhoun monument, unlike the Greenwood War Memorial, is publicly owned.)

According to court documents, Derfner is appealing the case to the S.C. Supreme Court, a move that could lead to the dismantling of the Heritage Act.

"That was really heartening to see," Holloway says.

Joseph McGill identifies former slave quarters throughout the country to raise awareness for preservation through the Slave Dwelling Project. During a phone call with CP, McGill was spending the night in one such dwelling at the Dallas Heritage Village, a collection of 19th century homes and buildings from North Central Texas. He doesn't want to see the Calhoun monument come down, but he strongly supports adding context.

"We need to know the rest of the story," he says. "Because he was such a prominent statewide figure and national figure, I think that statue deserves to be where it is, but it deserves to be where it is with a corrective narrative."

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