Military News

Plaque question holds up decision on moving WWI monument

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, in memory of the service men from Florence County, South Carolina, who gave their lives in the World War” reads the opening lines on a plaque formerly affixed to the 1928 World War I monument.

The recently restored plaque lists the 67 Florentines who gave their lives for the country from 1914 to 1918; specifically 42 “white” and 25 “colored” officers and enlisted men from Florence.

“Colored” was a word used to designate on signs places African-Americans could go, where they could be and entrances they could use during segregation.

It is also the word emblazoned on the plaque that may be placed in the Florence Veterans Park soon.

Originally, plans were for the marble monument to be moved onto a recently poured concrete slab in the Florence Veterans Park on Tuesday, without the plaque. But a decision on whether the restored original plaque or a new plaque will adorn the monument hasn’t been determined yet by the American Legion, which owns the monument, in conjunction with the city, which owns the park.

City Manager Drew Griffin said that out of an abundance of caution the move of the marble monument will now not take place upon the decision of the plaque, due to the restrictive nature of the S.C. Heritage Act.

The Heritage Act, passed in 2000, would require a two-thirds majority of the South Carolina legislature to move or change the marble monument once it sits on public property.

It’s not clear if that would also include whether the original plaque or a new plaque could go on the monument, but in light of an ordeal ensnaring the town of Greenwood over trying to remove a similarly phrased plaque, no one in Florence wants to find out.

“The city attorney was very concerned on the matter and the way the act is being interpreted,” Griffin said. “The attorney general’s opinion is such a strict interpretation of the law; so that needs to be resolved prior to it being relocated.”

A meeting is expected early this week with Griffin, Mayor Stephen J. Wukela, representatives of the American Legion and Barry Wingard who sits on the city’s Parks Commission and is chairman of the Veterans Park Committee.

“I don’t want to put anybody in an embarrassing situation, the city or the American Legion, and I don’t want to offend anybody,” Wingard said. “I agree that this needs to be washed out now, rather than after the fact; there are opinions on both sides of the issue.”

“In memory of the service men from Florence County.”

Griffin said the city Parks Commission unanimously approved the transfer earlier this year but the wording wasn’t noticed until recently. In light of the Greenwood situation and in the post-Confederate flag era the plaque is under new scrutiny.

Wukela, like Griffin, has received opinions from various people on the matter, including the city council which, should the decision come before it, he believes would vote not to place the plaque in its original form in the park. Wukela and other members lean toward a new plaque with the names alphabetized, with a reference somewhere to the change.

“Here it’s different; we’re considering erecting this monument new in a public park,” Wukela said in comparison to Greenwood. “That troubles me a little bit, the idea of erecting in a public park a monument with segregated names on it. I have a hard time bringing myself to the conclusion that that makes sense.”

Wukela, a Democrat, said the city would even pay for a new plaque. He suggests the old plaque be on display in the Florence County Museum or with other war artifacts in the county’s soon-to-be-built Veterans Affairs administration building near the Florence National Cemetery.

Members of the Greenwood American Legion Post 20 pushed for a change to plaques on their monument honoring “those who gave their lives” in WWI and WWII that sits on Main Street in the city. At the Legion’s bidding, Mayor Welborn Adams raised $20,000 for new plaques, but joint resolutions introduced by the House and Senate at the start of the legislative session went nowhere.

In May a lawsuit was filed against the state.

The efforts preceded the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds on July 9 after a marathon debate in the House. Days after, Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said he would not take up any other monument changes, renaming roads or buildings, or memorials “throughout the remainder of my time as speaker.”

“The General Assembly, the House in particular, made it abundantly clear during the debate of the Confederate flag that the only issue they were willing to discuss was the placement of the battle flag on the north lawn of the Statehouse,” Lucas said. “We reached a swift resolution last week and in doing so put an end to this discussion. Debate over this issue will not be expanded or entertained throughout the remainder of my time as speaker.”

The Heritage Act, created in a compromise to remove the Confederate flag from the dome of the Statehouse in 2000 and to a flagpole next to a Confederate Soldiers Monument, was at the center of a heated debate this summer.

Efforts to remove the flag found momentum after the massacre of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17. The nine black victims included state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. The man charged with the shootings was photographed, in the past, with white supremacist insignia and the Confederate flag.

A furor was already brewing over images of the man with the flag, the hate crime committed and the flag’s controversial past. But an act of forgiveness by the victims’ families created conditions for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to create a broad, bipartisan coalition to call for the flag’s removal from the Statehouse grounds to the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

But Florence Veterans Park isn’t the front lawn of the Statehouse and a stationary marble monument with a bronze plaque is not a flag.

Still, many believe the park isn’t a place for division.

“I think this is similar to flag in some ways because if it’s offensive to members of our community. It has that same effect. It’s a divisive effect that’s certainly the opposite you want to accomplish,” Wukela said. “I don’t think for a minute the Veterans Park Committee or members of the American Legion or Parks and Beautification Commission wanted to erect this monument in a protest to the civil rights movement and I believe that was the case in regards to the flag when first placed atop the state Capitol.”

Councilman Ed Robinson, an outspoken critic of racial and inequality issues, is also a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army from 1969 to 1971. He considers the park somewhat hallowed ground.

“If you’re going to do something that is going to offend some group of people, then it shouldn’t be done,” Robinson said. “All this will probably create some kind of backlash that we need to stay as far away from as we can.”

Moving history

“A tremendous crowd witnessed the exercises…veterans of three wars were honor guests,” the Florence Morning News Review proclaimed of the May 30, 1928, event. The $1,000 marble drinking fountain monument, created by Florence Memorial Works for the American Legion, was unveiled in front of the old Florence Library.

It is believed that in the 1960s, pre-Heritage Act, the monument made its way to the American Legion Fred H. Sexton Post 1 on East Palmetto Street—where it has stood since.

It wasn’t until recently that efforts were underway to restore the weathered and vandalized monument close to its original luster for placement in the Veterans Park. Workers at Brown Memorials in Florence have buffed the bronze plaque like new for wherever it will be displayed.

Eight thousand dollars was raised for the monument and National Guard troops are set to move the marble from Post 1 to the park when its fate is decided.

Wingard said the park doesn’t have a WWI monument and whichever form is decided on for the current memorial will be a great addition to the $2 million park, which is on six acres near the Florence Civic Center.

“They (American Legion) are excited they are able to support the city and community by making donation. If we had to start from scratch to build it would be tens of thousands of dollars,” Wingard said. “I don’t think anybody wants anything negative to happen. It all boils down to the plaque.”

The retired lieutenant colonel, who served in the Army and Air Force for 30 years, said that if it were his decision, he would keep the original plaque and put an informational panel nearby explaining segregation.

Post 1 Commander Charles Bethea could not be reached for comment.

Should the plaque end up in the hands of the Florence County Museum, following discussions this week, curator Stephen Motte said the plaque would be put in context like objects related to slavery and the segregation era.

“We’re sensitive to the way we exhibit and interpret objects,” Motte said. “But we are more in the business of preserving history than trying to change it in a way that is going to satisfy whatever the politically correct opinion is.”

Councilman Robinson understands those differences and believes the museum is a better fit.

“The Veterans Park is somewhat sacred ground that represents people who fought, gave their lives, their blood, sweat and tears to preserve sanctity of this country,” Robinson said. “The museum is somewhat different; it’s more educational than sacred.”