Push to Tell More Black History in Public Picks Up Steam

The Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park, installed in 2014, honors the man behind a planned slave rebellion in 1822 and a founder of Emanuel AME Church. GRACE BEAHM/STAFF
The Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park, installed in 2014, honors the man behind a planned slave rebellion in 1822 and a founder of Emanuel AME Church. GRACE BEAHM/STAFF

The South is replete with monuments and markers dedicated to Revolutionary War heroes and leaders of the Confederacy, not to mention countless roads, schools and other structures.

Landmarks recognizing the history of enslaved Africans and their descendants are much less visible. Cultural groups and historians have been working to change that for decades, including in South Carolina.

But the call for a more balanced narrative recently has grown louder. The shootings at Emanuel AME Church that killed nine black worshippers last June raised a nationwide discussion about Confederate symbolism in the South and underscored the need to tell a fuller story.

The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, posted photos of himself online posing at sites connected to the Confederacy and holding the Confederate battle flag. Weeks after the shootings, South Carolina legislators made the historic decision to remove the flag from the Statehouse grounds.

Since then, debate has escalated about whether Confederate monuments should be demoted or removed altogether from public spaces. Meanwhile, many say updating the landscape to include more African-American stories should be the immediate goal.

Redux Contemporary Art Center seemed to drive home that point with the colorful mural it installed on its St. Philip Street building this month to pay tribute to S.C. Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed at Emanuel. It includes his portrait next to a quote he once said: “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”

Some progress
In South Carolina, markers that center on African-American history account for about 15 percent of the roughly 1,600 historic markers installed around the state, according to the South Carolina Department of Archives & History. Most have been installed in the past 20 years, said Ehren Foley, who heads the department’s historic marker program.

“There’s a real push to do more markers associated with African-American history,” he said.

Many historians say that’s an important step toward confronting the uncomfortable truths of the past, including slavery and segregation, and away from focusing primarily on antebellum history.

“Tourists would come to Charleston and their tour guides would only give them the moonlight and magnolias and the white history of Charleston,” said Harlan Greene, a local historian and head of special collections at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library. “I think we’ve finally reached the point where black history is not just an add-on. You can’t have white without black, literally. They define each other.”

In the past decade or so, several new markers have been put up in Charleston that acknowledge the city’s role in the slave trade, locally organized slave rebellions and sites where African-Americans held protests during the civil rights movement.

Michael Allen, who has worked for the National Park Service for 35 years and is currently a community partnership specialist, played key roles in the creation of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor and Charleston’s future International African-American Museum.

He is now working to identify landmarks that were significant to the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, some of which he calls “hidden in plain view.”

For instance, he wants to put a marker on the main house at McLeod Plantation, a James Island Gullah/Geechee-designated site known for its history as a cotton farm manned by slaves. The house, Allen explained, was the headquarters for the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War.

“It was an agency of the U.S. government to provide transition from enslavement to freedom. And that’s a subject or entity that came out of Reconstruction that we don’t often talk about,” he said.

A few years ago, the Preservation Society of Charleston directed its attention to the post-World War II civil rights era.

In 2013, the group established state historical markers at the Cigar Factory, where black female workers led a strike; the Kress building on King Street, where Burke High School students held sit-ins to protest the segregated lunch counter; and the Medical University of South Carolina campus, the site of the 1969 hospital strike that helped remedy pay inequities and employee mistreatment.

A year later, the city unveiled the Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park after 18 years of local efforts to erect it. A freed slave, Vesey was a founder of Emanuel AME Church and was executed for organizing a planned slave revolt in Charleston in 1822.

And this year, Charleston saw two new historic markers erected about the slave trade and black soldiers’ roles in the Civil War. The Old Exchange Building helped establish a state marker on Broad Street about the slave auctions held around the city. In January, a marker was installed on the Charleston Battery commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, an all-black Union troop that led an unsuccessful assault to force Confederate troops from Battery Wagner on Morris Island during the Civil War.

Greene, the local historian who also helped approve the marker as a member of the city’s Arts & History Commission, pointed out that it sits across the street from a Confederate soldiers’ monument installed in the 1930s.

“We’ve not taken down the old Confederate memorial monument, but you know what, right across the street you can actually stand there and say, ‘oh, … we’ve kind of updated history and we’re actually focusing on something else,’ ” he said.

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Source: Post and Courier | Abigail Darlington