The fate of the Meriwether Monument, a 21-foot obelisk with a racially divisive inscription, is in the hands of the North Augusta City Council as well as the S.C. Legislature, depending on whether the monument is protected by the S.C. Heritage Act of 2000.
South Carolina’s Heritage Act controls what monuments, parks and buildings can be altered and how, and the city has asked for an opinion on whether the act is applicable to the monument.
“Yes, another request has been forwarded to the Solicitor General regarding the applicability of the Heritage Act to the Meriwether Monument,” North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit said.
“We have not received any indication of when a response might be forthcoming,” he said.
An opinion did come from the office of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson on Thursday evening regarding the constitutionality of the Heritage Act.
He released a video statement outlining his office’s findings.
“My office has looked at both arguments for and against the Heritage Act and has concluded that the Act and its protections are constitutional and that only an act by the South Carolina General Assembly can remove a monument. This is a position we are prepared to support in court,” he said.
He did say it was likely that a court would find that the two-thirds vote requirement to remove a monument is unconstitutional.
Questions about the act’s applicability to the Meriwether Monument have come up recently, following the current national conversation about race and police brutality. A July 20 protest ended at the monument, with protestors urging leaders to “take it down.”
The monument honors Thomas McKie Meriwether, the one white man who died in the Hamburg Massacre. Seven black men also died in the massacre, but their names are nowhere near the monument. They are, though, memorialized on a marker on Barton Road, around a mile away.
Rep. Bill Hixon, who represents the North Augusta area in the South Carolina House of Representatives, said he has lived in the city his entire life, 62 years, and lived right up the street from it and didn’t read the monument until recently.
“I see where the mayor had formed a committee to look at doing something different, and one of the last conversations I had with the mayor of North Augusta was they were going to try to use it as an educational tool and they were going to go around the monument and tell the other side of the story,” Hixon said.
“I’m in full agreement with that. That would be adding something. Like I told the mayor, I said, ‘Maybe we can be an example for the rest of the world, the rest of the United States, to show you know this is history and this is what we don’t want to go back to and we can learn from something.’”
Hixon said you could take away every monument, plaque, history book and name, but it doesn’t change history.
“You could do everything you could do to try to wipe it out, but it’s still going to be there and I think if you don’t know what history was, it could keep repeating itself and you need to learn from history.”
Regarding the Heritage Act, he said he was elected to do the right thing, to hold up the state and country’s laws, and the Heritage Act is the law.
He said when the legislature adjourned this week, they don’t plan on going back until September, and even then can only deal with what is included in the sine die resolution, the budget and bills that have crossed one body to the next.
“I guess we’ll have to look at that when we go back in 2021,” he said.
North Augusta City Council member Kevin Toole said he is still trying to figure out what to do with the monument but that he’d have "a difficult time getting behind any option that doesn’t remove any doubt that the monument’s sentiments have no place in our city. I have a hard time seeing how that can be accomplished while leaving it there intact.”
As far as the Heritage Act, Toole said he isn’t convinced the monument is protected by the act.
“If we find that it is covered and the decision is made to remove or alter it, then I would support us following the procedures outlined by state law to do so. If that request is denied, then we’d have to figure out how to proceed from there,” Toole said.
Toole and Hixon both mentioned the Calhoun Park Committee, chaired by Pettit, which has been tasked by City Council to determine the next step of action.
“I sincerely appreciate the work that the mayor’s committee has done and his leadership and courage in taking action to do something about the monument back when he did. He should be commended for that. I know that they are still working on formulating a plan and I hope to hear a recommendation from them very soon. In the meantime, I’d like to see a resolution from Council formally disavowing the sentiment expressed on the monument,” Toole said.
There is a campaign started by students and alumni of eight South Carolina colleges and universities called Repeal the South Carolina Heritage Act.
The organizers of the group applauded Wilson’s opinion that the two-thirds vote retirement is unconstitutional in a news release Friday.
The group says there are over 100,000 supporters and one-third of the state legislature in favor of repealing the act.