"The power brokers for the port understand the need for a version of history that meets their political needs. For more than a century the Port of Charleston was a cash cow for a handful of powerful Charleston families."
—From On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5
The State Ports Authority is in upheaval and transition — and not a decade too soon.
For years this reckless, cavalier state agency has thrown its weight around the Holy City. It has hurt the environment, trampled on the rights of dockworkers, played havoc with state and local politics. Headquartered on the waterfront, along Concord Street, the SPA is far enough from Columbia to be an almost autonomous government unto itself.
Yet this may be changing. With recent revelations about large bonuses to SPA officers, the abrupt resignation two weeks ago of CEO Bernard S. Groseclose, the potential loss of Danish shipping company Maersk, and the diversion of much of BMW's product from Charleston to Brunswick, Ga., it seems clear that the SPA is in for an overhaul. Some have suggested that it should be made a department in the governor's cabinet, or privatized altogether.
Whatever SPA's future, this would be a good time to relive a little history — and in the process, review how the SPA tried to rewrite history.
In 1989, local author and historian Richard N. Côté was contracted by the SPA to produce a history of the agency. He submitted his manuscript two years later, and the PR department at the Ports Authority went to work editing it. When they had finished, Côté barely recognized the product. He protested, saying the manuscript was a travesty of his work. The SPA refused to restore his manuscript, so Côté demanded that his name be removed from the cover and the title page. A History of the State Ports Authority was published later in the year with no author identified.
"Their book is a historical fraud and utterly without merit as a documentary history," Côté told The Post and Courier when the book came out. "It is a wholesale attempt to rewrite South Carolina maritime history as the SPA wishes it might have been – but never was."
Among Côté's charges:
• The SPA censored all descriptions of criticism, dissent, and opposition to its programs, plans, and actions
• The SPA censored virtually all references to controversial topics or statements critical of SPA actions or positions
• The SPA rewrote the text to flatter its members and friends
• The SPA rewrote the text to downplay the role of the Capers G. Barr administration
• The SPA altered direct quotations
• The SPA systematically censored all references to slavery and blacks from the text
This last failure was particularly alarming because African Americans have been working the Charleston waterfront since the earliest days of the city. Today blacks constitute more than 95 percent of the membership of the local International Longshoremen's Association.
Of course, to those of us raised in South Carolina, this historical revisionism comes as no surprise. Generations of us were weened on the official state history text, written by Mary C. Simms Oliphant and taught in public schools, which made only fleeting reference to slavery or the existence of black people in South Carolina. The inhabitants of her South Carolina were not only all white, but they were preternaturally wise and virtuous in all things.
It's hard to question the behavior of such sainted souls as presented by Ms. Oliphant. It helps to explain how many white people can still say — with a perfectly straight face — that southern secession had nothing to do with slavery. Likewise, I suppose it is also hard to question the actions and motives of a state agency of such sterling character as recorded in the official SPA history.
"At the time, I was absolutely incensed at what had happened to the book," Côté told me last week. "My outrage was based on the fact that the people of South Carolina were not being told the truth about their own state government, based on public record ... It shows S.C. government at its most absolutely paranoid absurd."
Then the Mt. Pleasant author and publisher added, "It's an amazing view of how a banana republic runs its politics."
Yes, he said "banana republic" — one of my favorite terms of endearment for this little state.
So it looks as if the State Ports Authority may finally be in for a good housecleaning. Is it too much to hope that this public agency may some day get its history cleaned up, as well?
See Will Moredock's blog at thegoodfight.ccpblogs.com.