If anybody is in a position to understand both sides of South Carolina’s Confederate flag debate, it’s Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service based in Charleston. He has worked extensively in historic interpretation at Fort Sumter, the place where the American Civil War began, and he has, at times, acted as a peacemaker between defenders of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and people who would like to see it taken down from its post in front of the S.C. Statehouse.
Allen’s current job with the NPS is to help chronicle historic sites that tell the tale of Reconstruction, a pivotal period in Southern history following the Civil War. He attended a rally in Columbia on Tuesday calling for the flag’s removal, and he offered to share his insights the next day on the meaning of the flag and how it can be used to start constructive dialogues about race and history.
Michael Allen: I come at this conversation, I guess, from being intimately involved in the interpretation of the Civil War for 35 years with the National Park Service and being blessed, in the early part of my career, to work at Fort Sumter.
City Paper: Right. I remember when we spoke last time, you talked about some of the misconceptions people would bring to Fort Sumter that they heard from their grandparents or a tour guide or something.
MA: Right, right. But I think in our current situation — and I’m not speaking out of turn — what I’ve shared with Park Service officials and friends and professional colleagues is that our current conversation regarding the use of the Confederate flag, the placement of the Confederate flag, is part of a larger narrative, and that larger narrative is: How can we as a people, as a nation, as a community have an open, honest dialogue about race in our country?
I say that from a historical context. I think one of the early stories that you all have done on me regards my work on Sullivan’s Island and being involved in 1999 with the placement of the African importation marker on Sullivan’s Island, which actually was, I guess, our community’s first public statement on the arrival and the diffusion of Africans. But it also was the beginning of the conversation of the dehumanization of a people. And as we move along in the continuum of time, that history of dehumanization plus the opposite side of that, the need for people who may be dehumanized, but you need their knowledge, you need their bodies, you need their skills, you need their ability, you need their talents — those two views then began to shape the hearts and the minds and the history of what we know today in South Carolina. Those are called seeds. And those seeds were able to germinate, figuratively and literally, through indigo, rice, cotton, tobacco, vegetable crops, and you had a segment of our population here that became wealthy as a result of the seeds that African people placed into the ground.
But the irony of it was that these people were recognized for their ability and skill, but yet they were not seen as a human, not seen as a valuable part in the grand scheme of our American experience. And those types of attitudes coalesced or gelled to move us now in a place where people of European descent that were in the leadership or in the responsible class, if you will, saw themselves as superior and saw the other individuals as inferior. That’s another seed that was planted, and because economic gains came out of the seeds being planted in the ground, it was necessary then to keep a separation. And so that manifested in the opulence, in the social structure, in the history and the culture of South Carolina and Charleston in particular.
CP: Should the flag come down, in your opinion?
MA: Well, let me be transparent here. When this discussion happened in the latter part of the 20th century, I had a position through my knowledge of history, but also my knowledge of the Statehouse building and also knowledge of decisions that the state has made, often contrary to the will of the nation. We know now, through those who were there in 1961, that that flag was placed there to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. That’s clearly what was the reason, and I’ve had a chance to speak to legislators who were there, so that was their intent.
“I believe that the mistake that was made by those persons in 1961 is that in the legislation that was passed, it should have had a sunset clause.”
We also know that intertwined in placing it there was a statement toward the movement of the Civil Rights Movement. We know that. I believe that the mistake that was made by those persons in 1961 is that in the legislation that was passed, it should have had a sunset clause. We know that was not there, and therefore, I guess without a sunset clause, no one took it on themselves to revisit the legislation in place there to remove it. So it just remained there, and it became a part of the permanent landscape, and it became accepted. But when history was unfurled and people began to share who were there originally, they were very clear that they did not know it would remain there as long as it did. That’s documented. So if that’s the case, then why keep something in place that was, quote, only designed to be there temporarily, and became permanent? And we see now that it’s not helping to move the state forward …
I guess through the art of compromise, it was removed from the top of the dome, it was taken out of House and Senate chambers — which I guess can be declared to be some sort of a victory — but then the next step was to place it where it at the present time in front of the building.
CP: Do you think it should come down from that post now?
MA: I knew that as I read the legislation, for where we are today to take place, there would have to be a sea change in the hearts and minds of the legislators of the state of South Carolina. Well, from 2001 up until to today, that sea change has finally arrived. Again, that’s another seed that was planted in the ground that germinated, and I believe that the tragic death of the nine individuals — specifically Sen. Pinckney — helped that seed to germinate and to sprout and to bring fruit as to where we are now today.
There’s a word that we have to interject here, and that word is “co-opt.” The Confederate battle flag, which is our source of conversation, first of all never flew above Fort Sumter — let me be clear about that — and it really was the flag that was used predominately in northern Virginia. But as time progressed and time moved along, that flag was seen as a symbol for Southern sympathizers and those who supported the cause and wanted to continue terror and other things moving into the 20th century, right. And so, from a Park Service perspective, we manage Civil War sites across the entire Southeast, and it’s our job at all of these sites to utilize the tools, utilize the history, the photographs, the artifacts of those battlefields to provide an educational interpretive experience.
“If the General Assembly felt that having that flag in front of the [Statehouse] was educational in terms of experience, I think they missed the mark.”
If the General Assembly felt that having that flag in front of the [Statehouse] was educational in terms of experience, I think they missed the mark. I think, moving forward, this brings us to another issue, and that’s education. Unfortunately many Americans are not always well versed — I’ll be nice — and so, through our education system, our school system, and through our parks and historic site systems, we have the challenge to bring history to the traveling American public. And I’m a person who believes that if you know and understand your past and your history, you’re better prepared for your present and your future. I think another seed that’s coming out of the ground because of the tragic death of the nine is people that are yearning to know more about the history as it was, not as it has been co-opted or changed.
If you do that, I think we can go back to Sullivan’s Island and understand what Sullivan’s Island is all about — what it meant, why it’s important. And I shared with our Park Service leadership that I was offended when it became apparent that Mr. Roof not only visited McLeod Plantation, not only visited Boone Hall, but he visited Fort Moultrie. He actually stood, in the photos he had with his [alleged] manifesto, next to the African importation marker. And I was offended because that was not why we placed that marker there in July of 1999.
CP: So back in 2010, after the fallout over the Secession Ball, I remember that you got some folks from the NAACP and the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans to actually sit down in a room and talk with each other face to face. Have you been able to get them in a room together about this most recent debate over the flag issue?
MA: You know, I have not.
CP: Do you think that would be a worthwhile thing to do?
MA: I will probably reach out to them, even if I can’t get them together, and talk to them. I have seen at least two or three of the persons publicly speaking, but because these are people that I know and work with and have relationships with, I probably will try to reach out to the four of them.
“The individuals that defaced the Calhoun monument and the Confederate defenders monument downtown — those two things should not have happened.”
What I said to them [in 2010] is we have a challenged history in our country, and all four of us, we know that. But there’s a way through this challenged history that we have to, one, get to know each other, have to respect each other, but also look at our differences, our similarities, but also look at how imagery has been projected that allows us to be separated. Let me be very clear here: The individuals that defaced the Calhoun monument and the Confederate defenders monument downtown — those two things should not have happened. I don’t want us to go down the slippery slope where people begin to attack edifices such as that. I don’t want to have someone call and say, well someone did something to Fort Sumter or Fort Moultrie or McLeod Plantation. Because these structures are there not only to remind us, but to teach us and to inform us.
So I’m very sensitive. I was part of the effort that now allows the traveling public to see two markers reflective of the history, life, and legacy of Robert Smalls. One stands near the Battery, and one stands near Waterfront Park. So those two markers are just as important as the John C. Calhoun marker in Marion Square and the Confederate defender marker at the Battery, because that’s a part of our continual landscape.
So I have to be very clear about that, and I think that we have to be very clear that everyone’s history matters. The challenge is being able to project it and interpret it so that people feel connected to it, or at least people can learn from it.
CP: We’ve heard several politicians, starting with Mayor Riley, saying something to the effect that, at some point in history, the Confederate flag was appropriated as a symbol of hate. To you, when did the flag become that symbol of hate? Was it last week after the shooting, was it in 1962 when the state started flying it, or was it at the outset of secession when this state seceded largely over the issue of slavery?
MA: Well, that flag didn’t exist during the time of secession in 1860. During the Civil War, the army of Northern Virginia led by General Lee utilized that flag on the battlefield. That’s documented, and that’s historic. In my mind, and you can very well research it, and I think in the hearts of many historians, the use of that battle flag in conjunction with the birth of the Ku Klux Klan led by former Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest perhaps was the turning point of that flag and its symbolism.
“was there any effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization to go get their flag back? That has to be asked. And if they did not go get their flag back, does that make them complicit?”
Even yesterday, I saw a gentleman … who was one of the Sons of Confederate commanders or leaders, who said that in his opinion, yes, that flag has been co-opted by bad people. He said it himself. Now, people have really been saying that, but not to the point where they’re saying that today. Now if he said that it was co-opted, the question is when was it co-opted? The next question: Say this was your possession, OK, and someone came and stole your possession. You would go and try to take it back, wouldn’t you? So the question was, if it was co-opted as he said publicly, was there any effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization to go get their flag back? That has to be asked. And if they did not go get their flag back, does that make them complicit?
CP: If we do end up removing the flag in Columbia, will other changes logically follow suit? Would we then be looking at taking Ben Tillman’s statue down, taking his name off the building at Clemson, renaming streets? Should other things follow from that, or would they follow logically?
MA: You know, I’m still wrestling with that, but I don’t want us to go down a bad pathway into that perspective. Because then the next question may come up, well OK, should we take the African-American monument off the Statehouse grounds? The next question would be, well, should the state of South Carolina fund the International African-American Museum? We have to be careful that we don’t find ourselves on a slippery slope, and I heard several of the speakers who spoke yesterday that we need items that reflect the history of the time, so we have to be careful. Now, does that mean we need to go back to Sullivan’s Island, go back to Fort Moultrie, and dig up the African importation marker? We have to be careful that we don’t move in that way because these symbols and edifices are necessary.