CHARLESTON, SC (AP) – The historic city of Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday removed a symbol of its legacy after the crew worked day and night to take away a statue honoring John C. Calhoun, an early American vice president whose diligent defense of slavery led the nation to civil war.
But the larger-than-life figure of Calhoun – known as “The Cast-Iron Man” in the early 1800s for his unyielding support for the rights of southern states – proved difficult to release. After a nighttime struggle, contractors decided to cut a diamond cutter through a metal shaft and attach his statue to a pedestal towering more than 100 feet (30 meters) above a downtown plaza along Calhoun Street.
What was expected to be a relatively quick task stretched to an ordeal that lasted more than 16 hours before the statue was lifted and brought to the ground late on Wednesday afternoon, with dozens cheering.
Jason Kronsberg, director of Charleston Parks, told The Associated Press that “unforeseen circumstances” were partly to blame for the delays, especially what he described as a large bronze piece, deep in the granite cylinder on which Calhoun is written, that officials did not know existed .
Charleston council and mayor voted unanimously on Tuesday to move it to “ a convenient location where it will be protected and preserved, ” the latest in a wave of actions stemming from protests against racial injustice in America.
“I believe we are starting a new chapter, a fairer chapter, in the history of our city,” said Mayor John Tecklenburg. “We are making the right move. It is simply the right choice for us. ‘
Dozens of residents spoke for and against the image during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Grace Clark, a Charlestonian who said her family has lived in the city since the late 18th century, asked them “not to remove our history. Not all history is good, but it is our history. “
Clark suggested an idea city leaders had considered in the past: adding contextual information about Calhoun’s history with slavery, rather than tearing down the monument.
Councilor Karl L. Brady Jr. said he would vote his conscience in spite of all the political consequences, showing that in Charleston, we are bringing “white supremacy and white supremacist thoughts back where they belong – on the ash-heap of history.”
The move comes days after the fifth anniversary of the murder of nine black parishioners in a racist attack on a church in downtown Charleston. It also comes as cities in the United States debate the removal of monuments to Southern leaders and others, and as thousands of Americans join street protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
When Tecklenburg announced his plans a week earlier, dozens of protesters threw their arms around the monument and shouted, “Take it down!” Some have painted the base of the monument; Police said they had been arrested several times for vandalism.
The Calhoun Monument has stood in the heart of downtown Charleston since 1898, high above a sprawling square where locals and tourists alike enjoyed festivals. But several event organizers recently said they would no longer use the space while the statue remained.
About 40% of enslaved Africans came to North America through the port city of Charleston, which officially apologized for its role in the slave trade in 2018. According to the city’s resolution, many see the statue “ as something other than a memorial to the achievements of a South Carolina native, but rather as a symbol of glorifying slavery and as such a painful reminder of Charleston’s slavery history . “
Calhoun’s support for slavery, which he called a “positive good,” never hesitated. He said in speeches on the U.S. Senate floor in the 1830s that slaves in the South were better off than free blacks in the North. With his pro-slavery Calhoun Doctrine, he led the South to secession before dying in 1850.
The South Carolina Heritage Act protects historic monuments and building names, but the mayor said the monument is not on public property, nor does it commemorate any of the historical events mentioned in law.
So far, Tecklenburg’s interpretation has not been legally contested. A two-thirds majority of the General Assembly is required to make changes under the Heritage Act. That’s tough in a state where conservatives dominate the House and Senate, but it happened in 2015 when the Southern flag was removed from the Statehouse grounds.
Governor Henry McMaster, a former prosecutor, described the Heritage Act on Tuesday as a “good state law” and a “deliberate process unaffected by passion and time.” Speaking about the mayor’s interpretation, he said, “It depends on how you read the Heritage Act, and there are people who read it in different ways.”
Several black lawmakers are urging local governments and colleges to act unilaterally in violation of the Heritage Act because it contains no sanctions and no lawsuit has been brought, and some intend to do so.
The ultimate resting place of the Calhoun statue is determined by a special panel. The mayor had expected to go to a local museum or educational institution.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
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