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Slavery apology a good step, but Charleston must also take down Confederate monuments

Moving Monuments



For several years, Charleston was the wealthiest city in the country because it profited from the enslavement of African Americans.

Slaves built Charleston City Hall, and the city collected fees from slave owners who leased out the services of their forced laborers, according to Mayor John Tecklenburg.

The city also pocketed business taxes from the sale of slaves, and collected fees to operate a disciplinary facility where slaves were beaten, chained to a treadmill to grind corn, and even executed, the mayor said.

Last month, the city recognized, denounced, and apologized for its particularly heinous role in the American slave trade.

The resolution also set tangible goals to rectify the ongoing vestiges of slavery in the city. It pledged to memorialize the unmarked graves of African Americans, improve public education, and institute policies that would encourage businesses to strive for racial equality in health care, housing and wages.

For acknowledging the role that Charleston played in bolstering the peculiar institution of slavery, increasing the understanding of how slavery shaped the U.S., and pledging to reduce the impact that the legacy of slavery continues to have on race relations in the city, the Charleston City Council deserves recognition.

But as we lift up incremental progress toward racial equality, we must also recognize that Charleston and the state of South Carolina have an important opportunity to more fully promote racial inclusion.

To take advantage of this opportunity, the city must start by taking down the physical manifestations of white supremacy that continue to cast long shadows over its parks, streets and institutions.

The statue in Marion Square of John C. Calhoun, who said of slavery, "I hold it to be a good," and Confederate monuments dotting the peninsula, must be removed.

These memorials should be placed in museums, where they can be studied and understood in their appropriate historical context. They should not be displayed in public places as heroic examples of the fight for the so-called "Lost Cause."

Likewise, downtown Charleston's Hampton Park — named for Wade Hampton, a Confederate general who at the start of the Civil War had inherited one of the largest collections of enslaved Africans in the country — should be renamed.

After the war, Hampton used the Red Shirts — a paramilitary group that violently terrorized newly freed, black South Carolinians and prevented them from exercising their right to vote — to secure the governorship of the state. It is estimated that 150 African Americans died during the campaign and election of 1876.

Charleston must start the process of removing Confederate symbols from its public spaces by engaging with state legislators to repeal the Heritage Act. Cities should have local control over local monuments.

As we pointed out in a recent SPLC report, in the three years since Dylann Roof massacred nine African Americans at "Mother Emanuel" church in Charleston, over 110 Confederate symbols across the country have been taken down or altered.

Charleston has a right and a moral responsibility to make its own decisions about removing symbols of white supremacy, whether Columbia approves or not.

It's about time that South Carolina's cities begin to recognize and understand the lasting impacts of slavery. People deserve to know that the myth of white supremacy formed the basis for slavery and its descendants: Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, achievement gaps, income inequality, and health disparities that continue to plague African Americans to this day.

Mayor Tecklenburg and the city council were right to pass a resolution apologizing for slavery. But words on paper are not enough to erase the systemic institutional racism that still haunts the city of Charleston.

Lecia Brooks is the outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

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