Touring Charleston's Racist History with the Mayor

originally written on may 26, 2017

I briefly visited the Charleston, SC- area last weekend and parked my rented F-150 on Calhoun Street across from Marion Square, a former parade ground surrounded by several monuments in the middle of downtown. My friend and I walked across the grassy field to a short obelisk honoring Wade Hampton III, one of the South's largest slaveholders and a Confederate general turned post-Reconstruction governor who unleashed violence upon African Americans and white Republicans throughout South Carolina to suppress votes.

At this monument to a real American stain, we encountered a small group of well dressed men and women discussing the statue and South Carolina's history of white supremacy.

We need to tell the whole story about these guys. Yes, they were important, but they were also 'racist SOBs,' said a white man with a tan suit and white hair.

I continued listening to the conversation when I heard the same man refer to his friend "Mayor Mitch"'s decision to remove monuments honoring Confederate leaders from New Orleans. During a lull in the conversation, I approached the man and asked if he was friends with Mitch Landrieu. 

He said he was and then asked if I was from New Orleans.

No, New York City, I said. I then asked if the group was on a tour. 

"It's sort of a private tour," the man responded, hesitating before shaking my hand and introducing himself. "I'm John Tecklenburg, Mayor of Charleston." 

After his wife Sandy shook our hands, the mayor invited us to accompany them along with the other three people in their party – a Charleston historian and two urban planning consultants. 

We walked to the Holocaust memorial, a roofless structure with a sculpture of a blanket or sheet in the center and the names of concentration camps on nearby stone. There, the historian informed us that Charleston was once home to more Jews than all the colonies combined. After the Civil War, many Jewish businesses catered to African Americans, he added. 

We ended the tour at the Square's main feature - a towering pillar supporting a statue of John C. Calhoun, former vice president, secretary of the state and long-time senator, who, the mayor informed us, not only supported the economic benefits of slavery but defended it as 'A Positive Good' for black slaves. 

Here's a section from Calhoun's infamous "Positive Good" speech:

"Let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."

I asked Tecklenburg what kind of pressure he has received about the monuments in his own city's park.

Not much, he said, though he is working with city historians to figure out the best way to "tell the whole story" about the powerful men who upheld forced labor, rape and murder of African Americans before and after the Civil War – and who still tower over the city's public spaces.

Two days later, I read the transcript of "Mayor Mitch's" speech on his city's decision to remove four monuments to Confederate leaders and a white supremacist militia that massacred African Americans:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This 'cult' had one goal - through monuments and through other means - to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy. It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone's lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. He said in his now famous 'corner-stone speech' that the Confederacy's "cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

"To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future."

I fantasized about ramming my rented F150 into that obelisk and then the Calhoun tower.