It was shaping up to be a “celebration of togetherness,” said Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams.
The small western South Carolina city had raised more than $15,000 to remove segregation-era plaques – honoring the city’s fallen soldiers in “White” and “Colored” columns – and replace them with panels listing the names together.
Then, “the Heritage Act came along and threw a wrench into everything,” Adams said.
Now, some Greenwood residents are fighting the S.C. law, passed in 2000, that says only the General Assembly has the power to change monuments.
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State lawmakers recently took advantage of that exclusive power.
After nine African-Americans in a Bible study at a Charleston church were shot and killed last month, lawmakers voted swiftly to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Furling the flag, seen in photos of the alleged shooter, would help the state heal, they said.
Citing their own desire for healing and racial reconciliation, local communities have asked permission to change other historical markers, too.
The existing war memorial plaques make Greenwood look like a “backwoods racist town,” said Dale Kittles, a military veteran and one of five plaintiffs suing the state to overturn the Heritage Act. “That’s not the Greenwood I grew up in.”
In the wake of the shooting, The Citadel asked lawmakers to let the college remove a Confederate naval jack from a campus chapel as a way to honor those who were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Some Democratic lawmakers say The Citadel, other universities and local governments should be able to make their own decisions about the monuments and memorials, calling for changes to the Heritage Act.
“As a state, we are so against the federal government telling us what to do, yet we are very fond of micromanaging local governments,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.
But fearing an onslaught of efforts to raze or remove from public view the vestiges of state history, Republican leaders in the Legislature are reluctant to change the law and cede any of that power.
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, announced last week that additional monuments would not be up for debate.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said changing the law is unlikely because it would “unleash battles, symbol by symbol, monument by monument.”
If we were to give in to what the agitators want ... there (would) be no end to the divisiveness and the campaigns and the wasted energy and time and effort that would descend upon the state.
– State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston
Calls for healing
Lawmakers passed the Heritage Act 15 years ago, ending a bitter dispute by lowering the Confederate flag from the State House dome to the Confederate Soldier Monument on its grounds. An African American Monument also was built as part of the compromise.
But fearing backlash against other historical markers, lawmakers added a new threshold for changing other monuments or memorials, requiring a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate.
170 + The number of Confederate monuments and markers erected throughout South Carolina, according to a 2001 S.C. attorney general opinion
Propelled by the June 17 shooting at Emanuel and calls to remove the banner, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate flag and place it in a museum this month.
But the Heritage Act prevents Greenwood and The Citadel from acting on their plans, their leaders say. And the law’s impact could stretch further.
▪ Students and alumni at Clemson and Winthrop universities have asked those schools to rename buildings named after Ben Tillman, a former S.C. governor, U.S. senator and virulent white supremacist. Clemson has a committee looking at the issue.
▪ A grassroots campaign has started to push lawmakers to remove a statue of Tillman from the State House grounds.
▪ Since the Charleston shooting, a graduate of James F. Byrnes High School in Spartanburg has called for the school’s “Rebels” nickname to be changed. The school was named after Byrnes, a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, secretary of state and former S.C. governor, whose nickname was “little rebel.”
The push to replace the Greenwood memorial’s segregation-era plaques started before the Charleston shootings.
Not everyone was on board.
Opponents threatened to have the mayor arrested if he moved forward with replacing the plaques. Historians also have raised concerns about replacing the plaques, saying they are reminders that the U.S. military once was segregated.
But Kittles said he and other leaders of the American Legion, which erected the memorial more than 80 years ago, wanted to change the plaques and received encouragement from the community.
“The men on that plaque who died for their country – that's history. Talking about the color of their skin is segregation,” said Kittles, a member of the Legion’s executive committee. “To say that black guy died or that white guy died – that ain't right.”
Adams, the Democratic-leaning Greenwood mayor, helped raise more than $15,000 from more than 40 donors – mostly white – to replace the plaques, he said.
Then, a city attorney advised Adams not to move forward. That was the first Adams had heard of the Heritage Act, he told The State newspaper.
People overwhelmingly wanted this. For the state Legislature to stop us from doing it, it's a real shame.
– Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams
Lawsuit against Heritage Act pending
A joint resolution in the House and Senate would allow Greenwood to move forward with replacing the war memorial plaques.
Sponsored by state Sen. Floyd Nicholson and state Rep. Anne Parks, both Greenwood Democrats, the proposals have bipartisan support but stalled in both chambers earlier this year.
Speaker Lucas, the leader of the state House of Representatives, has said his chamber will not debate any other monuments when it returns to Columbia in January. Senate leaders and some Democrats say changes to the Heritage Act are highly unlikely.
“If we can't get it done, we just can't get it done,” Nicholson said, adding that lawmakers have little appetite to debate the monument law after dealing with the Confederate flag.
Greenwood has another plan in the works that, if successful, could pave the way for the Upstate city and other communities to change historical monuments or symbols.
Five city residents – some members of the American Legion, some military veterans – are suing the state to overturn the Heritage Act, arguing it is a violation of free speech.
According to the lawsuit, the law forces the American Legion, owners of the war memorial, and the city “to be represented publicly and permanently by a segregationist message” that they do not believe in.
If the lawsuit goes all the way to the state Supreme Court, and the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, local governments and communities could decide the fate of war monuments and buildings named after historical figures, said Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney representing the Greenwood plaintiffs.
“We're not saying that anything needs to come down or stay up,” he added.
The problem with the law is it suppresses the citizens with the dead hand of the past.
– Armand Derfner, an attorney with Derfner & Altman in Charleston
The Associated Press contributed. Reach Self at (803) 771-8658
S.C. Heritage Act
- What is it? A 2000 law passed as part of a compromise that moved the Confederate flag from the State House dome to its grounds.
- What does it do? The law requires the Senate and House to pass by a two-thirds vote any changes to war monuments or public property named for historical figures.
- Why is it controversial? The law prevents communities – local governments, school districts, or colleges and universities – from deciding the fate of monuments and the names of structures or buildings.
- What it says: “(A) No Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, War Between the States, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, Native American, or African-American History monuments or memorials erected on public property of the State or any of its political subdivisions may be relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered. No street, bridge, structure, park, preserve, reserve, or other public area of the State or any of its political subdivisions dedicated in memory of or named for any historic figure or historic event may be renamed or rededicated. No person may prevent the public body responsible for the monument or memorial from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation, and care of these monuments, memorials, or nameplates. (B) The provisions of this section may only be amended or repealed upon passage of an act which has received a two-thirds vote on the third reading of the bill in each branch of the General Assembly.”
Heritage Act controversies
S.C. lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. But some communities say they have similarly divisive symbols they cannot remove or change because of state law:
- Greenwood war memorial: American Legion Post 20 erected the memorial in 1929 to honor fallen servicemen from Greenwood County. Plaques for World War I and World War II separate the honored dead into “White” and “Colored.” The mayor and American Legion leaders want to replace the plaques with new ones that list the names together.
- Confederate naval jack: The Citadel Board of Visitors voted 9-3 to remove the Civil War-era banner from the Summerall Chapel.
- Ben Tillman: Some lawmakers have said they should look at whether a statue on the State House grounds erected in honor of the former S.C. governor and U.S. senator should remain, but that debate has died down. Clemson and Winthrop universities also have buildings named for Tillman, an outspoken white supremacist, and critics want them renamed.
- The “Rebels”: James F. Byrnes High School in Spartanburg has come under fire for its nickname, the “Rebels.” The nickname has been in place since the early 1990s, when the school removed a Confederate soldier mascot along with a Confederate flag from its logo. The school’s logo features the name underlined by a sword. Byrnes was a S.C. governor whose nicknames was “little rebel,” according to the Spartanburg 5 school district.
- Confederate Avenue: State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said the name of the Columbia street, which runs from Main Street to Bull Street, near the site of a major economic development venture, may be the next challenge to the Heritage Act.