Driving into Abbeville’s historic Court Square, just past a 7-Eleven selling live bait and a fluorescent-lit Dollar General, sits a 21-year-old monument declaring that the Confederacy was “in the right” all along. It’s Thanksgiving day, 2017. The town square is empty, except for a smiling family staging a holiday photo at the Christmas tree next to the 40-foot granite obelisk touting the Lost Cause.
An exact replica of the county’s original Confederate marker erected by the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1906, which was damaged by fire in 1991, Abbeville’s current monument recognizes that the Confederacy was born here during one of the first organized meetings of secession in 1860. Just a stone’s throw away are two markers, much smaller in size, that tell a deeper story about South Carolina’s past.
One, erected by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2016, recounts the lynching of Anthony Crawford. A successful black landowner, Crawford was murdered in 1916 for “cursing a white man” who demanded he sell his cottonseed for less than its worth. Pulled from jail by an angry mob and dragged through town, Crawford was among eight black men lynched in Abbeville County between 1877 and 1950 and one of 185 total victims of racial violence who were lynched across South Carolina during that time.
The other monument of interest in this town square littered with historical markers is far less conspicuous. It sits a few feet high, tucked behind an overgrown shrub near the plaque detailing Crawford’s murder. On one side, the slab simply reads “Calhoun.”
On the opposite side of the state from the statue of the South Carolina legislator that towers over Marion Square in Charleston, the subtle marker in the county of John C. Calhoun’s birth resembles a tombstone more than a monument, simply listing his offices held and the years across which his tenure spanned — member of Congress, secretary of war, vice president, and at the time of his death in 1850, a United States senator. But in between the dashes that separate his final years lie the roots of the Confederacy and the strains of white supremacy that can still be witnessed today.
Whatever changes Charleston may hope to make in an effort to better portray the crimes of its past extend far beyond its borders. The blueprint for what would become the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and today’s white nationalist movement was drawn across this state more than 100 years ago. It started with grand speeches on the Senate floor followed by campaigns to erect monuments throughout South Carolina to white supremacists and the Lost Cause. And thanks to the actions of many Charlestonians, this final campaign of the Confederacy never ended.
Calhoun saw the abolition of slavery as a disease upon the nation and a direct threat to states’ rights that he held so sacred. In 1836, the senator called for the blockage of anti-slavery publications through the federal mail. His push for censorship came less than a year after the Charleston post office was ransacked by an angry mob and hundreds of abolitionist tracts sent from New York were stolen and burned. Speaking before the Senate, Calhoun compared anti-slavery propaganda to the arrival of cargo in Southern ports “freighted with the seeds of disease and death.” It became clear at this time that Calhoun had grown suspicious of the press and its role in spreading the abolitionist movement.
“[Abolitionists] have the disposition of almost unlimited funds, and are in the possession of a powerful press, which, for the first time, is enlisted in the cause of abolition, and turned against the domestic institutions, and the peace and security of the South,” Calhoun told his fellow senators on April 12, 1836.
Continuing his campaign against abolitionist petitions, Calhoun made his most direct endorsement of slavery in February 1837. It is this speech that is cited by Charleston’s History Commission in the language they’ve recommended for the new plaque to be placed on the Calhoun monument in Marion Square.
Tasked by Mayor John Tecklenburg to “Describe who Calhoun was and clearly elucidate his views on racism, slavery, and white supremacy,” previous drafts of the plaque led by declaring the monument “a relic of the crime against humanity” and the “plague of racism.” Those phrases were removed from the final draft and the overall tone softened. Instead the proposed language now begins with a brief timeline of when the monument was put in place, before explaining that it was erected at a time when “most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy and racial segregation.”
Back in 1837, Calhoun lamented how abolitionists had denounced slaveholding states and made the South appear “hateful in the eyes of the world.” It is also in this speech that Calhoun foretold that the threat to slavery would divide America.
In supporting his argument that slavery was “a positive good,” Calhoun claimed that “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
Calhoun died 13 years after delivering this speech, but his belief that slavery was a benefit to those subjected to its torment would carry on. At the unveiling of the original Calhoun monument in Charleston in 1887 — 24 years after the Emancipation Proclamation — U.S. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q. C. Lamar echoed Calhoun’s comments, telling the thousands gathered at Marion Square, “Every benefit which slavery conferred upon those subject to it: All the ameliorating and humanizing tendencies it introduced into the life of the African, all the elevating agencies which lifted him higher in the scale of rational and moral being, were the elements of the future and inevitable destruction of the system.”
Just as Calhoun’s monument still hangs over Charleston, so too do his beliefs on slavery remain alive in America, favoring the basis for the modern white nationalist movement.
“Africans have benefited from their experience with white supremacy,” said white nationalist Richard Spencer in a recent interview with the Guardian‘s Gary Younge.
While Calhoun believed abolition to be a pox upon the Union he so loved, tuberculosis proved to be the true threat to his life. Physically unable to deliver what would be his final speech to the Senate, Calhoun called on Virginia Sen. James Mason to recite his last address.
Calhoun presupposed the coming civil war and bragged of the incredible level of order in the South that would be undone by the end of slavery. Due to shifting populations and political sway in the North, Calhoun cast the South as an underrepresented and oppressed republic bound by slavery. Calhoun was also unable to see that his own argument against the end of slavery was an argument against the very institution of slavery itself, with one group exerting its power over another for the maintenance of order and unity.
“If the agitation goes on, the same force, with increased intensity, as has been shown, will finally snap every cord, when nothing will be left to hold the states together except force,” read Calhoun’s final speech. “But, surely, that can, with no propriety of language be called a Union, when the only means by which the weaker is held connected with the stronger portion is force.”
The effort to realize a monument to Calhoun would stretch over 37 years and involve a statewide push to honor South Carolina’s fallen son. Beginning with three women, the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association was born in a parlor at the corner of Meeting and Ann streets after Calhoun’s death in 1850. By 1854, when the Charleston chapter was formally established, chapters of the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association had sprung up across South Carolina. Charleston’s women had raised $2,500 by their first regular meeting in 1855. Just over a year later, that total reached $8,000 thanks to fundraising efforts throughout the state. In the southern portion of South Carolina, the effort to honor Calhoun became a call for women to unite where men had fallen short.
“The Legislature of South Carolina having failed to erect a monument to John C. Calhoun, and the men of South Carolina seemingly indisposed to unite upon any given plan for achieving this most becoming and honorable work, the ladies have resolved to take the business in hand and to push the noble undertaking on to completion,” read an 1854 article in the Edgefield Advertiser.
With funds pouring in across the state, a request was issued by the ladies’ group in Charleston for samples of Southern granite and marble. One such ad published in the Lancaster News appeared next to an advertisement declaring “Lands and Negroes for Sale.” Along with the 150 acres of land up for purchase were “the negroes Rachel, John Eivina, and other, names not known.”
While the grassroots effort to lionize Calhoun spread across his home state, the debate over slavery in Washington, D.C. turned bloody. On May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks, a South Carolina native from Edgefield, stormed the Senate floor and brutally attacked Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner following an anti-slavery speech. Badly beaten, Sumner would not return to the Senate floor for three years. Brooks, his attacker, resigned from his House seat in July of that year before being re-elected by his loyal constituents the following month.
Two years after Brooks’ attack, the cornerstone of what would become the Calhoun monument was laid in Charleston. Along with a lock of Calhoun’s hair placed alongside the cornerstone was a copy of his final speech before the Senate, during which Calhoun declared that slavery was necessary to the preservation of the South. Built into the very foundation of Calhoun’s monument, far below the eyes of those who may look upon it in years to come, is his full-hearted belief that slavery must be preserved.
By 1860, tens of thousands of dollars had been raised for Calhoun’s monument in Charleston, but the impending war between the states sidelined those efforts. During the war, Mary Snowden, treasurer of the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association of Charleston, served alongside her sister, nursing the sick and wounded. Snowden is said to have sewed the money raised by the association into her petticoat to hide the funds from Union troops. A widow after the war, Snowden went on to operate the Confederate Home of Charleston to “care for the mothers, widows, and daughters of Confederate soldiers, and to educate the daughters in the faith their brave fathers had fought for and their womanly mothers had suffered for,” according to an 1897 edition of the Orangeburg Times and Democrat celebrating Snowden’s 78th birthday and “devotion to the Lost Cause.”
Snowden died the following year at her Church Street home and was later honored with a marble tablet in the Statehouse thanks to a donation from the Daughters of the Confederacy, according to a Nov. 24, 1917, edition of Sumter’s Watchman and Southron. According to the article, the commemorative marker was unveiled by four young girls, descendants of signers of the Ordinance of Secession.
Looking back at the years following the Civil War, while Snowden had preserved the holdings of the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association, a sinister force was taking hold in the Upstate. Mirroring the spread of the Ladies’ Calhoun Association from the east, the arrival of the Ku Klux Klan from the west served as a dark reflection of the Lost Cause.
Crossing over the county line into York County today along Highway 5 South, you’re met by a small honky tonk whose sign is a Confederate battle flag. Speeding by the trees lining the highway, either evergreen or completely bare, save for the few touches of fall color, the sign is the only mark of the Confederacy until you reach the York County Confederate Monument. Set in front of a historic cemetery filled with the graves of Confederate soldiers, the York monument resembles the Abbeville Confederate memorial in shape, but not in size and statement. But it was here, in York County, that the Ku Klux Klan took its strongest hold in the South immediately following the war.
Originating in Tennessee in 1866 and spreading east, the Klan became so entrenched in portions of South Carolina that by 1871 Gov. Robert Scott called on President Ulysses S. Grant to quell the Klan’s reign of terror. By October of that year, Grant suspended habeas corpus in Spartanburg, York, Marion, Chester, Laurens, Newberry, Fairfield, Lancaster, and Chesterfield counties and sent in federal troops to round up klansmen. Sadly, the presidential order did not arrive in time to save Jim Williams, a former enslaved black man who had served with the Union after receiving his freedom.
York County was the primary focus of prosecutions of klansmen, according to The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872 written by Lou Williams, associate history professor at Kansas State University. Approximately 169 military arrests were made in York County before January 1872, Williams writes, and across the portion of South Carolina subject to federal intervention, as many as 600 suspected klansmen were taken into custody by December 1871. Among them were the white men who lynched Jim Williams.
Transcripts from their trial show that on the night of Williams’ death, as many as 60 York County klansmen gathered in a muster field called the “Briar Patch.” Members testified that they had long been familiar with the inner workings of the Klan, intent on suppressing black voters, while some believed joining the Klan was necessary to protecting their property.
Just as modern news outlets have struggled with covering white nationalists across the country, often leading to sympathetic profiles of their members, the Charleston Daily News in 1871 attempted to inform readers as to how the Klan had taken hold in South Carolina. Although the paper condemned the actions of the Klan, they also excused their crusade of violence.
“Sore and sick at heart, smarting with a myriad wrongs, abused, smitten, and oppressed — the Ku-Klux constitute themselves the champions of an injured people, finding a remedy for all we endure in a course of conduct which disgraces a state and people never before dishonored … A body of South Carolina white men, stung to the quick by insult heaped upon insult, mete out a bloody retribution to those whom they believe to be guilty,” the Daily News reported.
If this sounds familiar, the sentiment expressed in 1871, describing an angry class of disenfranchised white men, is echoed today in the words of alt-right mouthpieces such as Milo Yiannopoulos hoping to capitalize upon feelings of resentment in the country.
“If you have ever felt bullied, or victimised, or harassed, or marginalised — not by bullshit imaginary concepts like the ‘patriarchy’ but by people who want to stop you expressing yourself and who call you a loser, a manbaby, a shitlord, a privileged cishet white male — then Milo Yiannopoulos is for you,” he wrote in a 2015 article for Brietbart detailing his rise in popularity.
Following the Civil War, it was a similar sense of serving as a defender and advocate that stoked the violent white male identity in the South. As a part of their official oath to the Klan, which at least one man involved in the York County raids admitted to taking after only five minutes, all klansmen swore to protect their women from black attackers. This sentiment was again seen in 2015 when Emanuel AME Church gunman and avowed white nationalist Dylann Roof declared “Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world,” before firing on the youngest of his nine victims in a historically black church in Charleston. He was eventually sentenced to death by a jury in Charleston. That decision is under appeal.
Those facing charges for the murder of Jim Williams would further elaborate on the tactics of the Klan. Dressed in black, red, and white robes, members clad in false faces, some with horns, rode only at night. Several York County klansmen testified that they were to “put down radicalism by whipping negroes and making them change their votes.”
Klansmen approached Williams’ home around 3 a.m., breaking down his door and pulling him from his home. They had spent the evening rounding up firearms from black men around town. At the time of his death, Williams was a captain of the local military company. He had voted straight Republican ticket, against the Klan’s preference, and was in his late 30s when hanged. The defense claimed that Williams had made numerous threats against those who voted against his party, some alleging that the former slave planned to organize a black version of the Klan.
Williams’ widow, Rosa, testified that 10 men in disguise entered their home. Williams handed over two guns before being taken from his house. His wife found him the following morning hanging lifeless from a pine tree. After lynching Williams, members of the raiding party rode to the edge of town before stopping to enjoy cheese and crackers along with a couple bottles of whiskey.
The most severe sentence handed out in Williams’ death was five years in prison and a $1,000 fine. Most of the klansmen received a $100 fine and 18 months in jail. According to historian Lou Williams, approximately 17 murders and more than 600 whippings and other “brutal outrages” were committed by the Klan in York County alone during the Klan’s hold over the area.
Passing through York into Fort Mill today, beyond a brief patch of cotton fields on Highway 161, the hills give way to the Confederate Park. The small plot of land contains monuments to the “Defenders of State Sovereignty,” “Women of the Confederacy,” the “Catawba Indians,” and the “Faithful Slaves” of Fort Mill. While the memory of these “faithful slaves” is recognized in Fort Mill, former slaves such as Jim Williams and the scores of others subject to Klan attacks are a distant memory.
None of this is new
Born in Charleston in 1888, Mamie Garvin Fields never knew a time when the Calhoun monument didn’t exist in Marion Square — and the message it sent to the black community.
As federal troops began rounding up klansmen in York County, the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association of Charleston began formally meeting for the first time since the end of the Civil War. Questions were raised as to if erecting a statue of Calhoun would be the best use of the money raised for the monument. According to an 1874 article published in Anderson’s The Intelligencer, it was reported that Calhoun’s own daughter suggested the money be used to establish an educational institute in Fort Mill. Yet, work on Calhoun’s statue continued.
Standing 48 feet in height, the first Calhoun monument was unveiled on April 26, 1887, drawing massive crowds from across the state. On the big day of the unveiling, a procession of state and national dignitaries began at the Battery and wound its way to Marion Square. But just as soon as the fanfare died down, the monument became a target of mockery for the black community.
In their book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, set for release in March, historians Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts of California State University, Fresno examine how slavery is remembered — and misremembered — in Charleston. Kytle and Roberts believe there are two separate traditions regarding the memory of slavery in Charleston. One, the unvarnished truth. The other, the whitewashed memory.
“Confederate monuments themselves are part of this larger whitewashed tradition of remembering slavery. To put it simply, one of the things we argue is the debates that are going on now about what to do with Confederate monuments, what they symbolize, what they mean, what they should mean, our book essentially says that this is not a new conversation in any way,” says Kytle, who along with Roberts was consulted by Charleston’s History Commission in the drafting of the language for a proposed plaque to be placed on the Calhoun monument.
According to the two historians, an informal campaign of mockery and vandalism started almost immediately after the first Calhoun monument was unveiled. Recollections left behind by black Charlestonians like Mamie Garvin Fields show that the African-American community viewed the Calhoun monument as a symbol of black oppression and Jim Crow segregation. In her memoir 1982 Lemon Swamp and Other Places, Fields recounts the Charleston landmarks where African Americans were once forbidden. The Battery, where the procession to unveil the original Calhoun monument began, was one of those places.
Although Fields writes that she doesn’t believe that there was ever any formal law banning black residents from the Battery, she calls it one of the city’s unwritten laws. Once a year, on July 4th, local custom allowed black citizens to gather at the Battery to celebrate Independence Day, a holiday that held a special significance for Charleston’s black community, although many white Charlestonians viewed it as a “Yankee holiday” at the time. A large picnic would be held, songs sung, and speeches from Lincoln and Frederick Douglass recited. Standing in stark contrast to the words of Douglass, was the statue of Calhoun in Marion Square.
“As you passed by, here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘Nigger, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.’ The ‘niggers’ didn’t like it. Even the ‘nigger’ children didn’t like it,” Fields writes. “We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue — scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose — because he looked like he was telling you there was a place for ‘niggers’ and ‘niggers’ must stay there.
While Kytle and Roberts say they have found no definitive proof that the second Calhoun monument, erected in 1896, was raised due to continued vandalism, they point to the old city yearbooks as proof that the campaign against the monument continued well into the 1940s.
In the first report of the Commissioners of Marion Square following the placement of the new Calhoun monument, the commissioners requested new regulations to protect the monument. This included the passing of an ordinance specifically setting a punishment for “The digging up of pebbles on the drill ground, the throwing of the same, or of rocks, brickbats, and other missiles; the marking, cutting or otherwise injuring or defacing” of the Calhoun monument or the fence around it. The commissioners of Marion Square continued their call for increased policing at Marion Square into 1920, writing, “The lights on the Calhoun Monument have been broken by certain malicious persons, and have been replaced several times.”
“For a lot of Charleston’s modern history the unvarnished memory tended to be suppressed in Charleston in one way or another, pushed out of public spaces as a Lost Cause memory that effectively is the whitewashed memory that becomes the official memory in the city,” says Kytle. “The Calhoun monument is part of that process that starts in the 1880s and 1890s after Reconstruction and takes hold in the early 20th century when black and unvarnished memories of slavery effectively go underground.”
But, as Kytle and Roberts point out, the proliferation of the Lost Cause was about more than just monuments. It was pushed into classrooms and the minds of future generations thanks, in part, to two sisters from Charleston.
“There was a very concerted textbook campaign led by United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) including two sisters, the Poppenheim sisters from Charleston, who were huge players in white washing memories of slavery, our understandings of slavery, and our understandings of the Civil War in textbooks that students in South Carolina, in Charleston, and throughout the country read,” says Kytle. “That was a campaign that lasted and had effects arguably still to today, certainly in the textbooks that students read through the 1970s.”
Born in the 1860s, Mary and Louisa Poppenheim lived in their family home on Meeting Street. The sisters where they were heavily involved in local women’s clubs and the UDC, building upon the women’s movement seen in South Carolina during the push for the Calhoun monument. According to historian Joan Marie Johnson’s article in the Journal of Southern History, “Drill into us … the Rebel Tradition: The Contest over Southern Identity in Black and White Women’s Clubs, South Carolina,” an incredible overlap existed in the membership and ideals of many Southern women’s clubs and the UDC when it came to pushing the Lost Cause and belief that black violence posed a serious threat. Resembling the model of unity seen with Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Associations across South Carolina, the UDC would go on to erect at least 77 monuments and markers across South Carolina dedicated to the Confederacy.
“Southern white women assuaged defeat by celebrating white men’s ‘masculine’ roles as protectors,” Johnson writes. “At the same time, the club-women buttressed segregation because separation of the races protected white women from the supposed danger of black rape.”
By 1913, Keystone, a publication overseen by the Poppenheim sisters, boasted a reach of more than 28,000 female readers across the South. Promoting faithful slave stories in the Keystone, Louisa endorsed this misguided brand of nostalgia in literature reviews, writing that one author depicted “the real Southern negro, who knew no greater distinction than to be the servant of his master.”
According to Johnson, Louisa also tasked one of the women’s groups that she chaired in 1904 to examine which history books were used in schools to ensure that the “true” narrative was being handed down to students. Her criticism of certain texts would extend to declaring that they dwelled too much “on the evils of slavery” rather than state’s rights. This, of course, has led to long-lasting effects that heavily influence the modern discourse on the Confederacy and preserve the Lost Cause in both stone pillars and policy.
“What you’re dealing with is generations of policy makers and politicians who have been in control who were raised on the whitewashed memory of slavery,” says Blain Roberts. “And so they have to acknowledge that they were raised on historical lies and distortions. That is not easy for people to do. So we’ve got to have people who know the unvarnished truth continue to show them the evidence and make reasoned arguments based on what we know to be true. And I think that’s where we are pushing back against that tradition.”