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Fletcher Williams III wants to change how we think about palmetto rose artists in downtown Charleston. With his latest art project, Revising Divisive Phrasing, Williams presents a new way of viewing palmetto rose sellers — not as vendors, but as artists.

Up until last fall, these signs read: “The SALE of Palmetto Roses by Roaming Peddlers is ILLEGAL.”

And while the City of Charleston tells us that those signs have all been removed, their historical significance remains.

In October 2018, the city replaced the “roaming peddlers” signs with signs that direct visitors to approved palmetto rose kiosk locations: “City of Charleston authorized kiosk for the sale and purchase of palmetto roses is located at South Market and East Bay Streets.”[content-2] Williams’ version offers: “This area is designated for the sale of Charleston Palmetto Roses made by our local artisans.”

Published on his website and Instagram last week, the project has already gotten a lot of feedback — so much so that Williams says some people think his sign is really posted around town. “Some people thought the city had adopted the revision,” says Williams.

In reality, Williams’ photos of his signs around town are just the product of him temporarily hanging one sign in various downtown locations, from Waterfront Park to Rainbow Row to the Battery.

Williams originally came up with the revised phrasing last July, when he placed stickers with the words around downtown. And while Williams doesn’t know if the city saw or even acknowledged those stickers, the language on the signs did end up changing, following the arrest of a 16-year-old rose seller last July.

That incident also led to the creation of a task force to review and improve the Youth Palmetto Art and Business Program, which was started back in 2007. In February, the task force proposed raising the maximum age of participants from 16 to 18, one of a few proposals they planned to introduce to City Council.
[content-1] Even with the new city-approved language, the history of street vendors in Charleston has traditionally been shrouded in negative, divisive, and even criminal terms.

“This language isn’t new to the city,” says Williams of those original signs, the ones that call out “roaming peddlers.” He references a book, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, which describes black women selling flowers on Broad Street in the 1930s.

“During the high point of the spring tourist season, the city received a series of complaints about noise, blocked sidewalks, litter, fighting, and overly aggressive sales tactics among the flower women who hawked their wares in the heart of the historic district. Local politicians, fearful of losing visitor dollars, considered a proposal to relocate the women from the post office sidewalk to the marketplace.”

In his art, Williams first started working with the palmetto rose in a 2015 exhibition, Souvenir. A piece from that show, “Freshly Cut,” was installed in a Spring Street storefront after the Emanuel AME massacre, a way to memorialize those killed on June 17, 2015.

“I’ve been afforded the same opportunity with the same craft, but it’s been in regulated cultural public spaces,” says Williams. “I’m not dealing with hand-to-hand sales or tourism, I’m not the one that’s disrupting that industry here.”

Williams talked to City Paper in 2015 about his hope for art in the city: “I’m not saying that people don’t want to make work that’s socially conscious or political or anything other than what we’re used to seeing,” he said, adding, “It’s not nurtured. It’s not welcome. I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that.”

Four years later, Williams still sees the same issues in Charleston. “The city shouldn’t be scared of free and creative expression,” says Williams. “That’s the issue. They try to control so much of the culture — there’s gonna be this pushback. It’s where we’ve been for a long time, we have to try to figure out how to move past it.”

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