The next mayor of Charleston will be confronted with an array of cold facts about race in a city that still carries the burden of its founding as a slave society.
The color line in Charleston is, to be sure, less boldly drawn in 2015, but it still snakes its way across the city, keeping whites on the side of advantage and privilege and blacks on the other, lesser side. It has been that way since 1669, when Charleston’s English settlers adopted a founding charter which said, “Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.”
Today’s Charleston, 50 years after the high points of the civil rights movement, flies a red flag in many indicators of racial disparities. In neighborhood inequality, the Charleston region ranks a disquieting 25th among the 225 most populous U.S. metro regions, according to the Urban Institute’s 2015 “Worlds Apart” index. The peninsula — the historical center of the city — is more segregated than it was in 1960, with many blacks concentrated in outlying neighborhoods of poverty. Many schools are defacto segregated, there are relatively few black-owned businesses, and blacks are disproportionately underrepresented in the leadership and workforce of companies in Charleston’s emerging “knowledge” industry. Forty-six years after the settlement of the hospital strike at Medical University of South Carolina by mostly black workers, a later generation in lower-level positions continues to claim unequal treatment.
It’s not as if the current mayor, the 72-year-old legend Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is retiring in January after serving 10 terms, did nothing to further racial equality. In 1982, Riley appointed the city’s first and only black police chief, who was tough on deeply segregated neighborhoods beset by violent crime, but also trained his mostly white force to be community peacemakers. In 1990, Riley led a 114-mile march to Columbia to protest the raising of the Confederate flag over the dome of the state capitol. In 2014, he was instrumental in the city erecting, after years of debate and delay, a statue of Denmark Vesey, the freed slave who preached a fiery Old Testament gospel, and, in 1822, was hanged, along with 34 slaves, for allegedly leading an anti-white insurrection. For the past couple of years, Riley has also been a principal fund raiser for the future International African American Museum that will tell the story of slavery and its generational aftermath from the very waterfront dock that made Charleston the North American center of the slave trade.
But what has been missing during Riley’s 40-year mayoralty is an initiative on racial equality that acknowledges the city’s omnipresent color line and puts in motion what it would take to erase it. City Hall has a model for just such an initiative, and Joe Riley was its creator. There was a model for the city tackling a deeply divisive issue, and Riley was its creator.
In 1994, Charleston found itself bursting with tourists, four million of them annually. Hotels, restaurants and other service providers were very happy with the several billion dollars the visitors were spending. But residents were infuriated at having to step around the manure deposited on the streets by horses pulling the tour carriages, by the neon signs of the souvenir shops with their piles of T-shirts, by some visitors stepping out of walking tours to relieve themselves into the hedges of antebellum mansions.
To head off what could have escalated into an open rift between business and the neighborhoods, Riley created a diverse tourism advisory committee to engage supporters and opponents and everybody in-between. They spent months listening to why tourism was crucial to Charleston’s economy — and, alternatively, why it was making the city unlivable in the eyes of some residents. After many months of deliberations, they produced an action plan that struck a balance among all the parties that has seen tourism grow into an industry of more than five million visitors annually who spend $4 billion, and which has won at least the grudging support of the neighborhoods that had seen themselves as besieged.
In 2015, the city needs what we would call the United and Equal Charleston Plan. Its advisory committee, which should be even more diverse than the one Riley organized on tourism, would be tasked to bring together everybody on both sides of the color line. It would present detailed research done by a combination of city agencies and local educational and other private institutions to pinpoint every place where inequality exists in Charleston — in housing, public schools, healthcare, business and employment, and law enforcement, justice, and incarceration. Next, the committee would recommend how to close the equality gaps. Whatever this committee proposed would have to survive the scrutiny of public hearings. After everybody had their say, the recommendations would go to the City Council and other governmental bodies to be translated into laws, directives, and other action aimed at specific disparities. The goal would be equality as a “fact and as a result” in the still-reverberating words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1965 address at historically black Howard University in Washington D.C.
What Charleston, the former slave society, would do to erase its color line would be a beacon to other localities across America in helping them to face up to the consequences of their own historically embedded segregation.
All this is too late to happen on Mayor Riley’s watch, but the timing is perfect for his successor who will be chosen from among six candidates, white and black, male and female, experienced in local government and newbies. The winner, with no incumbency record that he or she would have to explain or justify, will be free to tell the truth about the city’s racial facts. But so far there hasn’t been much truth telling. The two reputedly strongest candidates, State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and community activist and small-business owner Ginny Deerin, don’t mention race conditions once in their platforms. In his video, Stavrinakis emphasizes “I’ll cut commuting time by syncing up traffic lights and finishing [I-]526.” In her flyers, Deerin focuses on her “bold transportation plan to relieve congestion and keep Charleston moving.” It’s essentially the same with the other candidates, white or black, as the Nov. 3 vote nears.
This eerie campaign silence about the state of race in Charleston contrasts sharply with what has happened in the community since the June 17 massacre at black Emanuel AME Church. On the Sunday after the event, hundreds of Charlestonians of all races prayed, hugged each other and sang “Amazing Grace,” as church bells tolled their beats for each victim at the United Prayer and Worship Gathering in Marion Square. The same things happened in city churches and other meeting places. Charleston’s two racial cultures appeared to be ready to come together. “Don’t Deny, Unify” became the catchphrase of what was starting to look like a new period in which Charleston would finally begin to put the eraser to its nearly 350-year-old color line.
In the new spirit of truth telling, during PBS’s Sept. 21 town-hall meeting “America After Charleston” at Circular Congregational Church, a middle-aged white man in work clothes and a ball cap stood up and said into the microphone, “My main purpose is to get out of denial and unlearn the racism I learned in the South and help other white men become part of the solution.”
The new mayor, upon taking office in January 2016, should make public policy out of the community’s collective cry of “Don’t Deny, Unify.” He or she, using Joe Riley’s proven blueprint, should create a United and Equal Charleston Plan.
The plan’s first recommendation ought to be the removal of the monument to former U.S. Vice President and slavery champion John C. Calhoun in Marion Square, a block and a half away from Mother Emanuel. That’s the start of the truth telling. Next should be a companion recommendation for a replacement monument.
“Marion Square Re-squared” would be a civic declaration announcing Charleston’s determination to achieve racial equality. No longer would minorities have to feel marginalized by the caped figure of Calhoun bestriding history from his 80-foot-high pedestal. The removal of the monument would also mean Charlestonians of all races wouldn’t have to avert their eyes from the memorial’s bronze homage to Calhoun’s motto of “truth, justice, and the Constitution.”
There would, of course, be opposition to the monument’s removal, but they’re not all white supremacists. Some preservationists, like Charleston historian Robert N. Rosen, say the monument should be viewed as a history lesson about racial injustice. But in this period of deepening national racial unease, how much history can be learned from a monument that honors a sectional political leader who proclaimed the “positive good” of slavery?
And then what should replace the divisive monument to Calhoun? We propose that it honor the most significant milestone of racial progress in Charleston’s history — the adoption of a new state constitution in 1868 that went beyond Reconstruction mandates and guaranteed equal and unconditional voting rights for all males, regardless of race. (An amendment from the floor for universal suffrage was defeated by the all-male assembly.) The year 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of the convention, which was held about a mile down the peninsula and shockingly is not memorialized anywhere in the city. There’s time enough now to erect a monument to that event, or at least have a commissioned design ready when its anniversary arrives.
Who can make this happen? Hopefully the decision, once Calhoun is gone, belongs to the new mayor and the united and equal people of Charleston.
Tom Grubisich, a former Washington Post reporter, and Elizabeth Bowers, a contributor to Charlie magazine, are co-writing a book about race in Charleston called Charleston: The Bigger Story of America’s Favorite City. They can be reached at @TomGrubisich and @bowerse. The hashtag for a monument in Marion Square honoring the 1868 constitution and its white and black authors is: #marionsquareresquared.