In the last week or so Facebook and the news have blown up locally with conversations about the fate of the Meriwether Monument in J.C. Calhoun Park in North Augusta. This isn’t the first time. A number of years ago The Star did a series of articles, editorials and letters on the subject. For me, it began with a letter to the editor from Robert “Scotty” Scott, a man born and raised in this area who had come home to retire. He wrote to The Star asking about the monument and whether it was time to do something about an obelisk that, at least for those paying attention to the words on it, is a constant reminder of one of the major shortcomings of our forefathers. (You’d be amazed at how many North Augustans have no idea what the monument says.)
From there, we took a closer look at the monument and the history behind it. I wrote a story entitled “Monumental Injustice” that detailed the history of the monument, the events of the Hamburg Massacre and the deaths of eight men, not just one white man.
Today, I think most everyone knows a little about the history of the massacre and of the obelisk that holds such a prominent place in North Augusta’s landscape.
When we were first investigating the monument, I thought it should come down – end of story. However, at the time a conversation with local historian Wayne O’Bryant led me on a slightly different path. Now, I haven’t talked to Wayne recently, in light of what has happened in the last few weeks, so I honestly don’t know if his viewpoint has changed, but I was reminded by him that we need to learn from the past, not try to erase it. Then he said what he envisioned was finding a way to tell the whole story. (The temporary answer was a committee who eventually came up with the historical marker – plus the list of the names of everyone killed that day in 1876 – now displayed in front of the old Society Building on Barton Road.)
Nearly 20 years ago North Augusta Forward (then called North Augusta 2000) established 32 initiatives, one of which involved establishing a Hamburg Park, probably near the Fifth Street Bridge. With that in mind I came to the opinion that perhaps the monument could be moved to that park and be joined by an appropriate memorial to the black men who were killed at the Hamburg Massacre.
Part of my thinking was that there should also be some background that explained what may have precipitated the erection of the monument at the time. It was proposed in the S.C. Legislature sometime around 1913. It was partially paid for with funds from the North Augusta City Council. The timing of the monument’s commissioning is important. There were many such monuments erected around that time, during the Jim Crow era, with the express purpose of reminding the black community that white supremacy was alive and well. Is such intimidation something we want to honor?
As officials consider what to do with such monuments, dotting the landscape of many Southern towns, all of those factors are important. We don’t want to forget what happened or what the motives of our forefathers were in commemorating the events of 1876 in such a biased way – for good or bad. We need to learn from them.
Today all monuments dedicated to the memory of our founding fathers, many of whom definitely had clay feet, are being called into question – Robert E. Lee, J.C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis and even men like Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. I see this in the same way I view John F. Kennedy – we now know of his scandalous womanizing, but does that negate his brilliance in handling the Cuban Missile Crisis? Both are a part of our history.
I think all of us have read that history is important so that “the present may learn from the past.” Destroying these monuments is not going to erase that shameful part of our history.
Yes, I understand that such memorials are a painful reminder of how our black citizens were treated from 1619 on up to today.
I have often questioned how we got here. The South lost the Civil War. Anywhere else in the world the loser of such a rebellion does not continue to fly the flag of the now-defunct government. For example, in Germany you will find references to the Third Reich are largely relegated to museums. You will not see a flag with a swastika flying in front of any German’s home. You will see such artifacts in museums commemorating World War II – including photos from the many concentration camps – no matter how difficult it is for some to see those pictures. These things are a part of world history, so erasing them isn’t the answer, in my view, but putting them in their place is.
At the same time, I think we can’t discount the achievements of certain forefathers because they owned slaves. Yes, slavery was horribly wrong. Yes, we need to acknowledge that the men who brought the United States into existence were less than perfect. Yes, it’s a painful part of our history that isn’t easily made right. But when something is named for George Washington, the folks doing the naming probably aren’t even thinking about whether he owned slaves. It doesn’t negate all the good such men did to bring this country into existence, does it?
We must not constantly slap a whole race in the face with those men, but I also feel that changing the name of everything named for Thomas Jefferson, for example, is unrealistic – his contributions to the formation of this country are invaluable and unforgettable.
I do think, however, that we all, as individuals and as organizations, must take a long hard look at such things – and we must listen to the people of color in our community who can better speak to the hurt – and maybe implied intimidation – they continue to feel to this day.
I recognize that I am not a black citizen of the United States, so I cannot begin to appreciate the depth of the feelings of a people who have been abused far too long in our history. But I return to the reason for studying history. Destroying all reminders of that part of our history will not erase the many wrongs committed in the past, but we can learn from those shortcomings so that we avoid making the same mistakes yet again.
And we can relegate that history to museums and history books, not to the most prominent spot in our town.