This South Carolina mayor wants to use a white supremacist monument to teach about unity

Posted at 8:17 PM, Nov 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-24 22:17:32-05

(CNN) — A South Carolina mayor believes state law prevents him from removing a white supremacist monument honoring a white man killed in an 1876 riot that also left seven black men dead.

His solution? Add to the monument by recognizing the black men who died in the Reconstruction-era clash between a black militia and a white mob.

“It’s an opportunity to look at something divisive for the community and hopefully make it a positive for the community,” North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit told CNN.

The stone obelisk has stood in a North Augusta park since 1916 and honors Thomas McKie Meriwether, who died in what’s known as the Hamburg Massacre, a clash that broke out as armed white men attempted to take control of a predominantly black town of the same name, according to a report by Pettit.

But it makes no mention of the black men who were killed.

Transcribed on the obelisk’s base is a message calling Meriwether a “young hero” who “exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal.”

That message makes it clear, Pettit said, that the monument promotes white supremacy.

“I’ve had nobody dispute it to me,” he said. “And we just need to take positive action to remedy that situation, in my opinion.”

Monument may be protected by state law

The monument’s future was first brought up by local activist Ken Makin following the August 2017 events of Charlottesville, Virginia,when a woman was killed as a suspected neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd protesting a white nationalist rally.

Makin’s call for the monument’s removal comes at a time when many cities and towns across the country are reckoning with the legacy of similar monuments, most of which commemorate the Confederacy. But the Meriwether monument is unique in that it doesn’t memorialize the Civil War or Confederate veterans or generals.

Instead, it marks a bloody moment during Reconstruction. Black militia were established after the Civil War to protect predominately African-American communities such as Hamburg.

The Red Shirts, a paramilitary group that wanted to reassert white supremacy and upend Republican power in the state, moved on Hamburg, which sat across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. The land where the extinct town once thrived is now part of North Augusta.

It’s unclear which side fired first, but Meriwether was killed in the ensuing gunfire.

Four of the blacks were executed, according to Pettit’s report.

A role in the massacre helped launch the political career of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a virulent white supremacist who later became South Carolina governor and a US senator.

Makin and Pettit said they weren’t even aware of the transcription on the monument at J.C. Calhoun Park, nor were many other North Augustans.

“It had stood in the center of town for over a hundred years in a prominent location, and most people didn’t pay attention to what it said,” the mayor said, adding he was “somewhat embarrassed by it.”

“I think a lot of people are uncomfortable because of it, knowing that’s not what we think today.”

Pettit started a committee of three whites and three blacks to investigate the monument’s history.

They spent 14 months researching it, and Pettit presented a report this month detailing the monument’s history and his recommendations of what should be done.

Pettit doesn’t believe the city can take the monument down, as it may be protected under South Carolina’s Heritage Act, which prevents the removal of certain historical monuments from public property.

The city is waiting on a definitive opinion from the state attorney general, Pettit said, but he hopes to move ahead with the recommendations from his report.

Mayor sees an educational opportunity

No one was ever prosecuted for the death of the black men and the federal government did not intervene, according to the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.

Rather than take the monument down, the mayor recommended additions be made to recognize the seven black men killed — James Cook, Allen Attaway, David Phillips, Albert Myniart, Moses Parks, Hampton Stephens and Nelder John Parker, according to the report.

It also recommends erecting other features, such as sculptures or plaques, to provide additional context about the Hamburg Massacre, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

It was the African-American committee members who made the recommendation, Pettit said, and the idea “resonated” with him.

They “actually said to keep it as a teaching tool, so that those white supremacy attitudes portrayed on the monument didn’t happen again.”

“It’s educational to know that viewpoint existed, so that it’s out in public and you can recognize that it’s not consistent with the way we’re thinking today.”

Even if the attorney general concluded the monument wasn’t protected by the Heritage Act, the mayor “would not recommend taking it down.”

“I think that’s a one-and-done, where as this, I think, can have a positive effect for a long time,” he said. “And I think in that regard we’re much better off as a city to have this educational experience that will persist.”

Activist: Keeping monument sends ‘wrong message’

Not everyone is content with the mayor’s suggestions.

“I’m not satisfied with that at all,” Makin said. He still wants the monument to be taken down. To do otherwise, he said, “doesn’t decisively denounce white supremacy.”

Makin did applaud the mayor for presenting the full story of the Hamburg Massacre.

But that’s not enough, Makin said, “I think it sends the wrong message to have that history and then to say, ‘We understand what happened, but we’re still not going to take this down.’ ”

There are also residents who want the monument to remain as is. They argue that it’s part of history and shouldn’t be changed, Makin told CNN.

That’s a “convenient argument,” he said, for people who have not dealt with the oppression that comes with being a person of color.

“When you talk about the preservation of history,” he said, “when you try to make these excuses to try to justify the past, as a black man in America, I’m not having it.”

Ultimately, Makin recognizes the mayor is in “an impossible position,” and gives him credit for the work he put in to evaluate the monument.

“I appreciate the spirit in which the mayor and the committee came together and told the truth about what happened,” he said.

“But I would think that this is such an open-and-shut case,” he said. “This is such a cut-and-dry issue.”