TOPPLE MONUMENTS and rename streets and buildings honoring the Confederacy? Or continue to officially honor the decision by South Carolina’s leaders to go to war to defend slavery?
It’s a stark choice that offers a satisfying answer for only the most extreme extremists. It’s the sort of choice we’ve always been presented in the debate over how we remember a past that makes many of us uncomfortable. It’s the sort of choice we’re always going to be given as long as we allow those extremists to drive the debate.
But as with just about everything in life, this black-and-white choice is a false dichotomy. The real choices are pretty much everything in between the extremes.
On Tuesday, the University of South Carolina demonstrated that a middle-ground approach is available in even such divisive matters as our slave history, when it unveiled two plaques to recognize the fact that slaves helped build the original campus from which the school has expanded over more than two centuries.
The plaques are what the university calls a first step toward meeting demands from a student group that USC acknowledge the role of slavery in the school’s history and that the university increase diversity among the faculty and student body. The plaques’ straight-forward language doesn’t veer off into commentary, even commentary about slavery, but merely acknowledges the incontrovertible facts about USC’s historic Horseshoe: “Its buildings and historic wall were substantially constructed by slave labor and built of slave-made brick. Enslaved workers were essential to the daily operations of the college, whether they were owned by the faculty or the college itself, or hired from private citizens. Enslaved people lived in outbuildings, one of which still stands behind what is now the President’s House. The University of South Carolina recognizes the vital contributions made by enslaved people.”
I’m sure this didn’t fully satisfy the snowflake sort of students who demand a complete repudiation of anything outside of their tiny comfort zones — or the kind of people who paste Confederate stickers to their cars or rally every year to protest the fact that we no longer fly a flag of a defeated nation on our State House grounds. But it was a good choice, a choice that addresses legitimate concerns by adding to rather than subtracting from history.
I’ve been calling on S.C. officials for years to handle their Confederate and post-Reconstruction controversies in a similar way. In a state where the Legislature forbids governments to make any changes to the altars to our racist past — even those with private owners who want to change them — it’s a pragmatic solution: the only way to get around the Legislature’s blockade on acknowledging that we are no longer a Confederate state.
It also honors the best intentions that could have been behind that prohibition: the idea, embraced by so many historians, that we should publicly acknowledge our past, so we can learn from it, rather than painting it over.
USC doesn’t have statues to the Confederacy, and although many buildings are named for slave-owners, none of the names carries the stigma of South Carolina’s most notorious white supremacist, Gov. Benjamin Tillman. So its challenge isn’t quite the same as the ones at Clemson and Winthrop, which have buildings named for Gov. Tillman that they’d rather rename. Or The Citadel, which has a Confederate flag in its chapel — its chapel — that it would rather not have there. Or the town of Greenwood, which has a monument to soldiers killed in World War I and II that it would rather not have segregated. Or any number of other communities across our state that are mandated by the Legislature to continue to honor the Confederacy, and practically any other part of our history, pretty or ugly, that is memorialized in concrete.
But adding an explanation is a solution that could work just as well — better perhaps — for communities that are saddled with the unpleasant monuments and building names. I hope officials at Clemson (which has added plaques addressing its slave history), and Winthrop, and The Citadel, and in Greenwood and other communities across our state will use this model to address their problem statues and names.
And who could possibly object?
Certainly not the die-hard Confederate supporters, whose rallying cry has always been that you can’t erase history, that you have to honor it. They should be the first to applaud the idea of giving us even more of our history. As university archivist Elizabeth West explained for an article on the school’s website: “We have so much more history to share about this institution than just the white men who had power then.”
The other people who ought to applaud are those of us who are uncomfortable with honoring the generals whose job was to defend our state’s right to maintain an economy built on slave labor — but uncomfortable with trying to hide our past from ourselves.
A plaque can explain that previous generations honored these people, why we don’t honor them, and that we’ve chosen to retain the honors so future generations will be forced to recognize both the pleasant and the unpleasant truths about our past. And because the Legislature leaves us no other option.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.