A portrait of a Black Reconstruction-era state senator and Civil War hero sat in a Statehouse closet for 13 years before finally being put on display Thursday in the Senate chamber without a public ceremony.
From the blood-soaked sands of Morris Island during the Union Army’s assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, Stephen Atkins Swails became the first black U.S. Army officer. Following the war, Swails gained prominence as a Williamsburg County businessman, newspaper editor, lawyer and the first black man to serve as the Senate’s president pro tempore. He served in the state Senate from 1868 to 1878.
S.C. Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, this week told the Charleston City Paper that the portrait was hung in a private ceremony after the newspaper questioned where it was. Malloy said he spoke to Senate President Harvey S. Peeler, R-Cherokee, who he said “is a friend, and he is conscious of these issues.” He declined to detail his conversation with Peeler.
Meanwhile Thursday, the specter of race raised its head when S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, commented on Swails’ fair complexion. In an email with a “what’s up” emoji that she sent to Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett and all of the state’s senators, she wrote: “That sure is the whitest-looking black guy I’ve ever seen.”
In an interview today, Senn said she didn’t mean the comment as a slight to Swails, but she thought she was sent a picture of the wrong portrait.
“I think this whole thing got blown way out of proportion,” she said. “I didn’t ever, ever intend for any kind of slight to this man. I think some good is going to come out of this. More attention is going to be brought to his significant and extraordinary history. Nothing I said is derogatory toward him. The good news is even if it is going to be at my expense, this gentleman will get some overdue recognition.”
In an interview with the City Paper, Malloy said: “I have no words to respond to comments like that.”
The move for recognition
Malloy was a junior senator in 2008 when he and three senior lawmakers co-sponsored a “momentous” resolution to display Swails’ portrait. On June 4, 2008, it passed the Senate with unanimous consent. Because he was not the chief sponsor the action to hang the portrait fell through the cracks, Malloy said. The lead sponsor was then President Pro Temporary Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and other co-sponsors were future GOP Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Kingstree and Kay Patterson, D-Richland.
“I can’t wait to go down there to see it,” Malloy said. The color portrait is now among those of other Black senators, the late I. DeQuincy Newman of Columbia, the late Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney of Charleston, and former Sen. John W. Matthews Jr. of Orangeburg. “Now we’ve got President Pro Tempore Swails,” he added.
In a Facebook post, Malloy said the portrait is “in a place of honor among many other distinguished South Carolinians.” In an interview, he said, “We have a chance to look at the face of greatness and have it look back at us … to let us know that a person of color had a leadership position in the Senate.”
Where’s the ceremony, Kimpson asks
Malloy’s response to the long awaited hanging of Swails’ portrait was more muted than that of Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston.
“I think the hanging of this portrait deserves more ceremony than a last-minute e-mail from the President of the Senate notifying the body that the piece would be hung under the cloak of darkness,” Kimpson said today.
He added that if there had not been a recent inquiry by the City Paper about why the portrait has not been hung in 13 years, “this portrait would still be sitting in a closet. … At minimum, the people who commissioned and contributed to the portrait should have received some advance notification. We will work to honor Lt. Swails and tell children across the state about his contribution to Civil War history.”
The people who commissioned the portrait were just as surprised as Kimpson that it was unceremoniously displayed without notice.
Jannie Harriot, a retired Hartsville educator, said: “So how did it get hung? It has been sitting in a closet all this time and now they decided to hang it?”
When told the portrait is up on a Senate wall, Kingstree attorney Billy Jenkinson said: “You kidding!” Asked why he thinks it took so long, Jenkinson, who is white: responded: “Just some white supremacists up there in Columbia” who didn’t want to honor Swails.
In 2006, Harriot and Jenkinson co-chaired the African American Historical Alliance, a private group that commissioned the late Michael Del Priore to paint Swails’ portrait. He had made six other portraits of S.C. lawmakers that are displayed in the Senate and House chambers. From 1868 to 1878, Swails represented Williamsburg County in the Senate, including three terms as president pro tempore
Swails served in spite of bigotry in the U.S. military and widespread political violence following the Civil War. After the war, he built a diverse coalition of white Democrats and Black Republicans who elected him mayor of Kingstree then to the Senate. In the legislature, Swails advanced bills that benefited formerly enslaved people. But when backlash to Reconstruction reached a tipping point, Swails, the editor of the Williamsburg Republican, was forced to flee the state or be killed. He retreated to his native Pennsylvania.
New book outlines how Swails got to South Carolina
In April 1863, Swails signed up for a three-year stint with the all volunteer unit of Black soldiers who made up the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The unit is depicted in the movie “Glory” for its assault on Fort Wagner. Although he enlisted as a private, Swails was later commissioned as the army’s first black officer. He died in 1900 at age 68. He is buried in the Humane and Friendly Society Cemetery in Charleston near Magnolia Cemetery.
Joseph McGill, a Kingstree native and a Civil War reenactor who lives near Charleston, said, “I didn’t think it would have taken this long for the Swails portrait to reach its intended destination, but I’m not surprised. How symbolic is it that a man who escaped a lynching is now hanging in the Statehouse.”
Scores of biographies extol the achievements of Civil War generals and major political figures, but the lives of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers, like Swails, who volunteer to fight in the Civil War against slavery, have largely gone unnoticed. Swails’ life is documented in Gordon C. Rhea’s new book “Black Freedom Fighter: In the Civil War and Reconstruction.” It is due to be released in November by the Louisiana State University Press.
Rhea, a Mount Pleasant resident, said it is “about time” to hang Swails’ portrait. “He was an extraordinarily important person. To ignore him is to ignore a major, major political figure in South Carolina.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.