It was a noble gesture intended to salve the wounds of this former mill town’s segregated past.
Mayor Welborn Adams and the local American Legion raised $15,000 for new plaques on the town’s war memorial to replace ones that designate the dead from World Wars I and II as either “Colored” or “White.”
Instead of praise for righting the wrongs of the past, Adams was threatened with arrest and accused of whitewashing history.
“I know you can’t change history, but why keep segregating people by race?” Adams asked inside his downtown real estate office before strolling down the street to show a visitor the memorial and its worn bronze plaques.
Greenwood, a stately town of 23,000 people that is 45% black, now finds itself tangled in a controversy over wording that reflects attitudes in town — and in the U.S. military — from nearly 70 years ago.
Like many Southern towns, Greenwood is struggling to break free from the burdens of race and history. The town’s leaders say it long ago shed its Jim Crow legacy and now embraces diversity, although it is still home to separate white and black American Legion posts. Now, according to some residents, the issue is ensuring that the town’s segregationist past is not erased. They say history demands formal acknowledgment that the U.S. military was once segregated.
“History means telling the story — the whole story,” said Eric Williams of Greenwood, who spent 32 years as a U.S. Park Service historian. “You don’t leave out the ugly parts or the distasteful parts.”
Changing the plaques would destroy the memorial’s historical integrity, Williams said as he stood beside the commemorative plates, which list veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars alphabetically — with no racial designation. The military was desegregated in 1948.
“History cannot be altered,” said Williams, who is white. He suggested that the new plaques be installed at a local veterans museum with an “interpretive sign” explaining military segregation.
Adams, who is white and was born and raised in Greenwood, said of that suggestion: “That’s like saying, ‘We were racist then but we’re not now.’” He laughed and mentioned a 1950 line by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The South is dotted with towns haunted by the past. In Georgia, the towns of Waynesboro and Thomaston have similar war memorials, and other Southern memorials designate black veterans with a “C.” Clemson University is wrestling with demands to remove the name of Benjamin Tillman, a founding trustee and white supremacist, from an iconic campus building.
Statues and street names honoring Confederates are common sights in the South. Fears by some South Carolina whites that such tributes would be erased forced a compromise in a 2000 law that removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome in Columbia. The law also said no historical memorial may be “relocated, removed, distributed or altered” without legislative approval.
Adams, 48, said he first proposed changing the plaques during a speech four years ago to Greenwood’s white American Legion, which installed the memorial on city property in 1929, with World War II dead added later. The idea was rejected.
But last summer, the post’s executive committee voted 10 to 0 to remove the plaques, though some rank-and-file members remain opposed, said Dale Kittles, a committee member. The post worked with Adams to raise $15,000, with two blacks joining 41 whites in contributing. Adams wrote a $1,000 check.
“That memorial is for the warriors, not for the color of their skin,” said Kittles, 51, a white Army veteran and Legion committee member who proposed the vote. He also said he’d like the white and black posts to merge into one.
Retired Master Sgt. Thomas Waller, a prominent Greenwood veteran, says most local veterans want the “Colored” designation removed. Waller, 82, who is black, served 20 years in the Army.
“We trained together, shipped out together, fought and died together,” Waller said. “Nobody worried about whether you were white or black.”
Waller refused to join either American Legion in town because of their racial designations, but says he is not offended by the “Colored” plaques. “I just try to think ahead to the day when it won’t say black or white — just soldiers,” he said.
Blanton Smith, president of the Greenwood NAACP, said the “Colored” plaques were painful reminders of Jim Crow. “Those men on that memorial deserve better,” he said.
Adams scheduled a ceremony to unveil the new plaques at the memorial on Jan. 19 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But opposition was mounting, in part because of Adams’ comment to the local newspaper: “I think if history offends people, it needs to be rewritten if possible.” He says he now wishes he had said he was changing the way history is presented.
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SOURCE: LA Times, David Zucchino