Charleston leaders vote unanimously to remove Calhoun monument from Marion Square


Dustin Waters

"A more equitable chapter in our city's history"

Charleston City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to remove and relocate the John C. Calhoun monument. A date to remove the statue was not provided at the meeting and a location was not decided.

The majority of public comments were in favor of removing or relocating the monument. Some 291 people were in favor of taking the statue down and 50 were in favor of keeping it in Marion Square, according to a count of comments received prior to the meeting.

"I want to call your attention to Calhoun as not just a slave owner, but as one of the main architects of the pro-slavery argument, which meant that slavery was the best of all possible foundations upon which to establish a society," said Bernard Powers, a College of Charleston history professor, in support of the statue falling. Powers is also the interim CEO of the International African American Museum at the east end of Calhoun Street.

For some callers, the resolution’s provisions calling for the statue’s preservation were too good of a fate for Calhoun. "I also think you should not relocate it anywhere significant," said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist in North Charleston. "It should go to what the state has already paid for. The state paid for a crypt, a grave at St. Philip's Church, it should go there with other dead folk and dead things about Charleston."

Rivers suggested changing the names of Calhoun Street and Rutledge Avenue to Martin Luther King Drive and Denmark Vesey Avenue.

Former Councilman Henry Smythe noted there's "more than white heritage" that should be considered in Charleston history. "Mr. Calhoun's explicit and public arguments and actions in support of slavery should not continue to be publicly honored in the space of Marion Square," he said.

Bob Baker voiced his discontent with the proposal to pull the statue down. "What are we teaching our children? If you do hundreds or even thousands of good deeds for the common good, you better never make any mistakes or express any opinions that could be considered objectionable," he said. Calhoun, who served as Vice President and U.S. Senator, was a supporter of slavery and laid the groundwork for nullification, which led to South Carolina’s secession 10 years after his death.

After the public comment period, members of council discussed the statue.

"I'm asking my colleagues to go along with me," Councilman Robert Mitchell said. "Being a person that was out here for a long time in the civil rights movement, I know how the City of Charleston was all those times back in the '50s. None of us talked about heritage, we talk about peace, coming together — it wasn't that way. It didn't happen. Now is the time, we need to have some healing process. I don't think a statue is a place that is going to bring a healing process if we let it stay there."

Councilmember Karl Brady cited the history of the monument as a statue erected during the era of Jim Crow laws, and put on a pedestal after it was continuously defaced.

“Statues and monuments are put up during specific times in specific places for specific reasons, and their effect is often to try to rewrite and reframe the actual history of an era,” he said. This was put up, “so that everyone who passed by would be forced to literally and figuratively look up to his memory of white supremacy, and his likeness could both literally and figuratively look down on those who he considered his unequals and would have gladly enslaved just generations before.”

Mayor John Tecklenburg also faced the argument that history is being erased by removing the statue, one of the most frequent criticisms. "The purpose of this resolution is not to discard any of our past, but to honor our lessons," he said. "Not to erase any of that history, but to write a new chapter."

"This motion will preserve and protect the statue and put it in a place, an appropriate place where it's history can be told," he added, calling for a commission to advise where the monument will go.

"The first step is to remove the statue," Tecklenburg said, before an appropriate site for it is determined.

A timeline for the statue’s removal has not been publicly announced.

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