Legislators want a monument to Robert Smalls. His great-great grandson knows why.
A new statue proposed for the S.C. State House probably won’t spark protests like other Southern monuments, but it may not solve the debate those statues have sparked either.
If a proposal by state Sens. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, and Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, gets legislative approval next year, the crowded grounds of the State House could see a new addition – a statue of Robert Smalls, an escaped slave who became a Reconstruction-era congressman from the Palmetto State.
The memorial could win approval now, in part, because of the wider debate around monuments to Confederate history across the nation, including the State House.
“I’ve never been a fan of tearing down,” Jackson said Wednesday, unveiling the proposal. “I’m a bigger fan of making the State House grounds more inclusive.”
Jackson, in particular, long has wanted to see a monument to Smalls at the State House. Smalls is a personal hero to the Columbia Democrat. A portrait of the Beaufort native and Union Civil War veteran hangs in Jackson’s Senate office.
But, he notes, “There’s no monument on the State House grounds to any Reconstruction-era politician.”
“We have to respect all history,” Jackson said.
Reconstruction was the post-Civil War period when freed slaves briefly claimed their full civil rights and won election to many state offices.
Gregory signed on to the idea after reading a biography of Smalls.
“This was an amazing man,” Gregory said. “But few South Carolinians know about this great citizen.”
Born into slavery in Beaufort, Smalls was a boat pilot. He won his freedom by commandeering a Confederate ship and piloting it out of Charleston harbor and into the Union blockade outside the port.
Afterward, Smalls fought for the Union. After the end of the Civuil War, he was elected to the S.C. House, state Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, advocating for civil rights for former slaves.
If the new State House monument is approved by the Legislature, it would join other monuments on the Capitol’s grounds that honor Confederate and segregation-era politicians. Those memorials have drawn protests since violence broke out in August at a white nationalist rally opposing the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.
In South Carolina, the monuments are protected from removal by the state’s Heritage Act, which requires a legislative super-majority to remove a statue.
“It’s not a cure-all, but it’s, hopefully, a way forward,” Gregory said of the proposed Smalls monument.
‘Doesn’t make the issue go away’
Critics of the monuments don’t think a new statue will change the debate around the monuments already at the State House.
“We already have the African-American memorial (at the State House), and that doesn’t make the issue go away,” said Nathaniel Simmons-Thorne, a member of the Columbia Black Lives Matter chapter Simple Justice, which has protested against State House monuments.
Simmons-Thorne hopes to see some State House statues come down as part of “an open, honest and frank discussion, the same as happened in Germany and South Africa.”
Michael Moore, Smalls’ great-great-grandson, hopes the monument debate doesn’t derail plans to honor his ancestor. But the president of Charleston’s International African-American Museum is sympathetic to the concerns around the monuments.
“Our offices are right across from Marion Square, and every day I look up at (the statue of) John C. Calhoun,” one of the state’s most pro-slavery politicians. “It hurts to think what he stood for, and what he would of thought of (Smalls) as an enslaved person.”
Moore hopes a Smalls memorial would counter those ideas with the message that “no matter your background, you can do great things.”
S.C. STATE HOUSE MONUMENTS
Some of the other monuments on the State House grounds that a statue of Robert Smalls might join include:
▪ Confederate Soldiers Monument. Erected in 1879 in front of the capitol on Gervais Street, the monument is topped by a statue of a S.C. Confederate soldier.
▪ Wade Hampton III statue. The Confederate general and slave owner was South Carolina’s first post-Reconstruction governor, serving from 1876 to 1879, and, later, a U.S. senator from 1879 to 1891.
▪ Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman statue. Governor from 1890 to 1894 and a U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918, Tillman endorsed lynching African Americans. He also was architect of the state’s 1895 Constitution, which stripped blacks of most of their postwar civil rights.
▪ James Marion Sims statue. The pioneering gynecologist is criticized for experimental surgeries performed on enslaved women without anesthesia.
▪ African-American History Monument. Unveiled in 2001 after a compromise measure removed the Confederate flag from atop the State House dome, the monument depicts scenes of African-American history in South Carolina.