When a group of neo-Confederate yahoos proposed building a “secession monument” at Patriots Point a few weeks ago, I considered the idea too preposterous to even comment. Whatever else it was intended to do, it would rub salt into ancient wounds and make a mockery of the real patriots who are celebrated in that public park.
Then last week we got a glimpse of another monument which is coming to another park and is probably another bad idea. The Denmark Vesey monument, planned for Hampton Park at an undetermined date, celebrates the man who allegedly led a conspiracy to free thousands of slaves and massacre the white population of Charleston in 1822. After the plot was exposed, a group of white citizens condemned and hanged Vesey and 34 alleged followers in extra-legal proceedings, using evidence that would not hold up in a modern court.
Whether Vesey and his cohorts were guilty of all that was charged is still questioned by historians. My theory is that the trial and hangings were largely political theater concocted by Charleston Intendant (Mayor) James Hamilton, Jr., who was in the early years of a long and flamboyant political career. White people lived in terror of slave rebellions, and Hamilton gave them what they wanted. And for delivering them from the clutches of Vesey and his cohorts, they rewarded him with the governorship and other honors.
How to remember Denmark Vesey has been a problem for this city for a long time. Of course, he was not remembered at all for most of the past two centuries. That has been South Carolina’s way of dealing with its tragic racial past.
Things started changing in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1976, the City of Charleston hung a painting of Vesey in the foyer of Gaillard Auditorium. It was promptly stolen and not returned until Mayor Joe Riley made it clear that another painting would be commissioned to replace it.
The Vesey monument has been in the planning stage for over a decade, and every time it comes up in the news, it sparks a torrent of letters from outraged white people. Yes, in this city with so much gore and violence in its past, a violent black man is too much for some whites to contemplate.
I question the Vesey monument because it — like the secession monument and other Confederate claptrap — seems intended to inflame passions as much as memorialize events. The fascination with Vesey is particularly confounding in light of the fact that Charleston has such a worthy alternative. I am speaking of Robert Smalls.
For those not familiar with our local heroes, Smalls was a slave and harbor pilot on the Confederate steam courier Planter. On the night of May 13, 1862, while the ship’s officers were partying ashore, Smalls brought his wife, children, and several other slaves aboard the Planter, fired up the engine and took the boat out beyond the Confederate defenses and surrendered it to the blockading Union fleet.
Smalls was a hero throughout the North. He received a $1,500 prize from Congress and served in the Union campaign for the rest of the war, commanding the Planter and taking part in 17 engagements around Charleston harbor.
After the war, he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention, which gave the state the most progressive constitution it has ever had. Among other things, it granted universal male suffrage and free public education for all children.
He served in the state Senate and the state militia, and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874. His influence began to wane with the end of Reconstruction in 1876, but he kept his U.S. House seat intermittently until 1886. His last important political role was at the state constitutional convention of 1895, when he and five other black delegates fought unsuccessfully to stop the forces of Ben Tillman from disenfranchising black voters.
Robert Smalls not only fought on the right side of history, but did it with such honor and distinction that it would be hard to object to a memorial in his honor. Yet he has no monument or memorial that I am aware of in this state. It’s probably too late to stop the wheels on the Denmark Vesey monument, but I think Robert Smalls would be a fitting alternative.
As for the secession monument, the sooner it is forgotten, the better. It would be an insult to the true patriots who served this country in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, and who are remembered by monuments and ships at this great park. Let’s keep it great and keep the Confederate dreck out. Parks and monuments should exist for the edification of all citizens. A secession monument makes a mockery of that purpose.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.