The African-American Monument

The African-American Monument. Photo by Bob Botsch

(scroll down to the end of the article to see more pictures)

In March of 2001, an event of note took place with the dedication of an African-American History Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. State senator Darrell Jackson called it “a reflection of what can be done when all citizens work together in unity” (Bauerlein, “There are so many things,” 2001, A1, 12). The African-American Monument, the first such structure to be built on the grounds of a state capitol, had its genesis in a 1994 proposal for a state Heritage Act. Republican State Senator John Courson wrote the Heritage Act in an attempt to develop a compromise that would remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome. The legislation passed the state Senate but failed in the House. Two years later the state Senate passed another piece of legislation to create a monument, but the House refused to consider the bill. Two state senators, Darrell Jackson, an African-American Democrat, and Glenn McConnell, a white Republican, then tied the bill to an economic development proposal that Governor Beasley favored. Beasley responded by calling the legislature into special session, and the House passed both bills. 


The legislature set up a Commission to oversee the project, but its members had widely varying views on the project and how to proceed. There was much disagreement on even the content of the Monument’s panels. The chair of the Commission, state senator Glenn McConnell, was a strong supporter of the Confederate flag. One member was a legislator who had voted against the project. The vice chair, representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, was an advocate for the rights of African-Americans. She was also the member often described as the moving force behind the project (Davis, 2002). Cobb-Hunter had strong feelings about the project, stating at one point that some commission members were trying to destroy the project. The Monument project inevitably became entwined with the ongoing battle over the Confederate flag, which resurfaced virtually every year. With feelings over the flag running high and legislators unable to agree on a compromise concerning the removal of the flag from the State House dome, Senator Jackson at one point demanded that Senator McConnell resign from the Monument Commission (Harris “Cobb-Hunter,” 2001, A12). 


Despite the acrimony, the project went forward. With some help from the South Carolina Arts Commission, a volunteer Citizens’ Advisory Committee chaired by art educator Mac Arthur Goodwin designed a prospectus. The project was advertised in national publications. Artists from all over the country and even abroad were eager to design the African-American Monument. More than forty artists submitted proposals, including several South Carolinians. The Citizens’ Advisory Committee narrowed the group down to three finalists who met with both the African-American Monument Commission and the Citizens’ Advisory Committee. Both groups were in accord, choosing Ed Dwight of Denver, Colorado. In the words of one member of the Monument Commission, the quality of Dwight’s sculpture, or his “ability to sculpt,” stood out (Davis, 2002). Dwight’s other work includes a ten-foot tall statue of baseball player Hank Aaron in Atlanta (Crumbo, 2002, A8). The Citizens’ Advisory Committee worked with Ed Dwight on the plan for the Monument.


In the beginning, Ed Dwight intended to represent specific people in South Carolina’s history in his designs, but the Commission asked that he not do so. In part this was a political decision, intended to avoid controversy. For example, one panel, dubbed the “conspiracy panel,” represents the activities of people like Denmark Vesey, a controversial figure in South Carolina’s history (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A18; Davis, 2002). Vesey was a former slave who bought his own freedom after winning a lottery. The leader of a failed slave revolt in 1822, he was executed after his capture. Dwight originally intended to include a statue of Vesey, as well as a panel that showed the Ku Klux Klan lynching blacks and burning crosses. Ultimately, Dwight was asked to simply design panels that would symbolize various periods in history, rather than specific persons. He also substituted words for the images of the Klan (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A18). Pictures of these panels can be viewed at the end of this article.


Thus, although each of the twelve beautiful panels on the African-American Monument represents something of significance in the experience of South Carolina’s African-Americans, a visitor will find no words of explanation or captions under each panel. Following a series of public hearings across the state the Monument Commission determined that the African-American Monument would not “represent any actual human being who actually lived” (Davis, 2002). The casual visitor may look at a panel and think of an important historical figure like retired South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Ernest Finney, musician Dizzy Gillespie, or tennis player Althea Gibson. Some of the media even reported that the figures on the panels represent real people (Crumbo, 2001,A8). But the official position of the Monument Commission was that the panels would not be “an official, literal interpretation” of anyone (Davis, 2002). Each viewer should interpret the meaning for him or herself.

The Monument was completed at a cost of over $1.1 million, all privately raised. Schoolchildren from around the state were among the contributors. Made of granite and bronze, it stands two floors high and is 25 feet wide (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A1). Ironically, the Monument is located on the east side of the state Capitol not far from the final “home” of the Confederate flag. Legislators had eventually agreed on a compromise to move the flag off the State House dome. They had the flag placed on a thirty-foot pole near the Confederate Soldier Monument in July of 2000. This mixture of symbols on the State House grounds was reflected in the final clash among Commission members who represented the differing views of South Carolinians. As the time for completion of the Monument approached, Representative Cobb-Hunter played an active role, signing the last contracts, and encouraging citizens to turn out for the dedication. However, she boycotted the Monument ceremony in protest after Senator McConnell appointed state senator Robert Ford, an African-American Democrat, to the Commission at the last minute and added his name to a plaque on the Monument. McConnell said that he was doing this to recognize the role that Ford had played in shepherding the enabling legislation through. McConnell also praised Cobb-Hunter for her hard work on the Monument project. Cobb-Hunter, who received some criticism for her decision to boycott the ceremony, said that she was “standing on principle” and that the “process was taken over by politics” (Harris “Cobb-Hunter,” 2001, A12).

Despite Cobb-Hunter’s absence, the ceremony went on. According to the security staff at the State House, so many people came to see the dedication that they could not all fit under the rotunda of the Capitol (Wise, 2001, 1). More than four hundred people watched one of the more unusual re-enactments in South Carolina. Civil War re-enactors dressed in Union uniforms marched and African-American re-enactors presented flags in preparation for the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance. Poet Nikky Finney read a poem that she had written about South Carolina’s African-Americans for the dedication. The Hallelujah Singers performed two spirituals as the ceremony moved indoors to avoid a cold rain (Bauerlein, “There are so many things,” 2002, A12).  Some of those standing outside broke into song themselves, singing what has been called the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (Wise, 2001, 1). Many of those present and those who came later liked especially that this monument, representing four hundred years of African-American history, was not hidden away behind a fence or a wall. Even schoolchildren could touch the faces on the panels or the stones at the base of the obelisk. These “rubbing stones” come from four areas in Africa that were originally homes to the enslaved Africans. These are Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and the Republic of Congo (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A18; Bauerlein, “There are so many things,” 2001, A112).

Politicians who were present took note of the significance of the event. Governor Jim Hodges acknowledged that although this monument has been called the first of its kind to be erected on the grounds of a state capitol, it might more accurately be referred to as the second. After all, the State House itself was built with the labor of the enslaved. Senator McConnell described the Monument as “a story of achievement” (Wise, 2001, 1).

Jesse Washington, a Commission member and director of the State Human Affairs Commission, expressed the hope of many that the Monument would help to lead South Carolina into an era of improved race relations. He stated: “It is a fact that when people have a clear understanding of the contributions that people have made, the respect for people grows” (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A1, 18).

Shown below are pictures of the panels on the African-American Monument, as one would view them by moving around the Monument from left to right. The panels are chronological. Photos by Bob Botsch. Sculptor Ed Dwight described each of the panels to a reporter for the State Newspaper (See Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A1, 8).

This panel represents the beginning of enslavement in the early 1600s.

A man and a woman, who is holding her baby, stand on the auction block.

This is a close-up of the inscription on the panel above.

This panel represents the “Middle Passage,” when Africans were

captured, then brought across the ocean to the Americas. In this panel, 

a white slave trader is beating an African, who is in chains, as the African

leaves the boat.

            This panel represents the early days when enslaved Africans worked 

in the fields to harvest indigo and rice. Only later did cotton become a

major crop.

             

            This panel shows several black men planning a revolt. There were

                a number of slave revolts, beginning in the early 1700s and continuing 

                into the 1800s.

             

            This panel represents the African-Americans who fought in the Civil

                War. The 1st South Carolina Volunteers, organized in 1862, was the 

                first of three such regiments formed in the state that fought for the Union.

             

            Although Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had no immediate

                impact on most of South Carolina’s African-Americans, since the state was

                not at that time under Union control, freedom came when Union troops

                took South Carolina in 1865.This panel celebrates the joy of freedom.

             

            Future generations visiting the Monument will learn that it was sculpted

                by Ed Dwight of Denver, Colorado.

             

            Reconstruction was in a sense a golden era for South Carolina’s

                African-Americans. It was a time when African-American men could

                vote and hold office, and when there were educational opportunities 

                available for black men and women. This panel represents that era, which

                ended in 1876 when Union troops withdrew from the South.

             

            Under the 1865 Constitution, whites passed new laws called Black Codes

 that placed restrictions on blacks. The federal government negated these

                laws, and the 1868 Constitution gave African-Americans the right to vote

and to an education. But even during Reconstruction, there was discrimination.

Some whites attempted to intimidate blacks with violence. After the end of

 Reconstruction, there was a return to white rule and blacks lost most rights.

 Jim Crow laws required the separation of the races in almost all respects.

            The words in the first of these two panels show what life was like for African-Americans

                in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

            Many African-Americans left the South after Reconstruction and moved North,

                seeking a better life. About 20,000 left between 1880 and 1900. In the first

half of the twentieth century, about half a million African-Americans left. The

second panel depicts this migration, as a family prepares to leave South Carolina.

             

            The Civil Rights era was a time of great change. This panel depicts

                some of the events of that period, including the landmark Brown v.

                Board of Education case in 1954, which led to the eventual desegregation

of public schools. Briggs v. Elliot was a South Carolina case that began

                with a lawsuit filed by parents in Clarendon County, South Carolina,

                with the help of the NAACP. This was one of several cases that were

                folded into the Brown case.

             

             

            South Carolina’s African-Americans have succeeded in entering the

                mainstream of American life. This panel represents their achievements

                in such fields as law, music, athletics, space, and science.

             

            On the pavement in front of the Monument there is a

                depiction of a tightly packed slave ship.

             

                                                                                    Carol Sears Botsch

Associate Professor, USC Aiken

carolb@aiken.sc.edu

Portions of this article will appear in a textbook chapter entitled “Minorities in South Carolina Politics,” Charlie B. Tyer (editor), South Carolina Government: A Policy Perspective (Columbia, SC: Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, 2003).Used with permission.

References:

 

Bauerlein, Valerie. “Granite, bronze and triumph.”The State Newspaper (March 25, 2001): A1, 18.

Bauerlein, Valerie. “There are so many things that need to have been told.” The State Newspaper (March 30, 2001): A1, 12.

Crumbo, Chuck. “Monument draws rave reviews from crowd.” The State Newspaper (August 31, 2001): A1, 8.

Davis, Kenneth. Member of African-American Monument Commission. Telephone interview (June 26, 2002).

Harris, Kenneth A. “Cobb-Hunter boycotts monument ceremony.” The State Newspaper (March 30, 2001): A12.

Wise, Warren. “Tearful crowd dedicates state’s African-American monument.” The Post and Courier (March 30, 2001): 1.

Last updated 7/01/02

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