December 2010, Week 3


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Sat, 18 Dec 2010 15:14:48 -0500
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Still Fighting the Civil War in South Carolina

By Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts
L.A. Progressive
December 18, 2010


Monday evening is shaping up to be quite a night in
Charleston. Confederate enthusiasts are throwing a
grand ball there to celebrate the 150th anniversary of
the state's secession from the Union. Hundreds of
people, many decked out in hoop skirts and militia
uniforms, will drink mint juleps and dance the night
away.  Jeff Antley, who has organized the Secession
Gala, states that the event "has nothing to do with
slavery."  He proposes that it is a commemoration of
South Carolinians who "stood up for their self-
government and their rights under law."

But local members of the NAACP disagree, and they've
got professional historians on their side:  It is an
undeniable fact that South Carolinians seceded to
protect their right to own slaves.  "This is nothing
more than a celebration of slavery," observes Lonnie
Randolph, president of the state NAACP chapter.  He'll
lead a downtown march and a candlelight vigil outside
the municipal auditorium where the ball is to be held.

Candlelight vigils and costumed waltzes get headlines,
but Monday night will be just one more showdown in
another civil war, one that has raged in Charleston
since 1865.

When the city fell to the Union army that year, local
freedpeople staged public demonstrations to mark
slavery's end.  Huge crowds of former slaves paraded
through city streets, even conducting a mock slave
auction and displaying a hearse that proclaimed,
"Slavery Is Dead."  African Americans in Charleston
also built a cemetery for Union soldiers who had died
as prisoners of war, and they came by the thousands to
its dedication.

Meanwhile, white Charlestonians worked to memorialize
slavery's most vocal champion, John C. Calhoun, who had
died in 1850.  In 1887, after a 30-year campaign, they
installed a monument to Calhoun in Marion Square, the
park at the very heart of the city.

Rendered powerless by Jim Crow laws in the 1880s and
'90s, the city's black residents could do nothing to
prevent the memorialization of the man who had worked
hard to keep them in chains.  So for decades they
subjected the monument to an informal campaign of
ridicule and defacement.  Even after the original
statue was replaced by a second, which stood atop an
enormous column, it continued to be vandalized.

More recently, controversy has swirled around an effort
to erect a monument to Denmark Vesey, a free black
executed for plotting a slave rebellion in the city in
1822.  Local black activists first proposed the tribute
in the 1990s so that the city would acknowledge the
centrality of slavery to its past.  They also hoped the
Vesey Monument would force Charlestonians to confront
the reality that slaves were unhappy, so much so that
they might violently rebel.

Resistance to the monument has been formidable.  Local
whites have offered the standard litany of excuses
about the marginal role, and benign nature, of slavery.
Ground on the memorial was finally broken in February
2010, but only after opponents had prevented the
statue's placement in Marion Square.  The Denmark Vesey
Memorial will stand in Hampton Park, far from the
Calhoun Monument, far from the city's historic
district, far from the eyes of millions of tourists.

Calhoun's likeness, standing just a block away from
where revelers will celebrate secession Monday night,
embodies white Charleston's preferred method of dealing
with its slave past: denial.  Dedicated to a man who
called southern slavery "a positive good," the monument
honors Calhoun's commitment to truth, justice, and the
Constitution.  It says nothing about slavery.

Despite the efforts of black Charlestonians and their
white allies, slavery has been confined to the margins
of the city's public memory.  The upcoming NAACP
protest against the Secession Gala is a bid to bring it

The shelling of Fort Sumter opened a long and painful
civil war.  Let's hope that this latest exchange of
salvos-another confrontation with repercussions far
beyond Charleston-will instigate a different sort of
civil process.  The nation must attend to the pain of
its history and the pain that the denial of that
history continues to inflict.  For after the band stops
playing and the gala ball comes to a close, one fact
will remain: Charleston's protracted civil war is our

Republished with permission from:


Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts teach in the
Department of History at California State University,
Fresno.  They are writing a book about slavery and
public memory in Charleston, South Carolina. E-mail:
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