South Carolina senators have proposed a statue honoring Robert Smalls, a civil rights icon. Their goal is to make the Statehouse grounds more inclusive without taking down existing monuments.
By Bill Rizzo
November 21, 2017
Two South Carolina senators want to honor black civil war hero Robert Smalls with a statue on the State House grounds. Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Richland County Democrat and Greg Gregory, a Republican from Lancaster Country, say they do not want to take down monuments honoring Confederate heroes. Instead they want to make public spaces more inclusive.
At a time of political divisiveness and intense debate about taking down statues honoring Confederate soldiers, these senators are working together to honor Smalls, an enslaved boatman who heroically stole a Confederate ship and sailed it to a Union blockade emancipating himself and his family. Smalls then convinced President Lincoln that African-American men were fit to serve in the Union Army.
When Smalls was 12 his owner’s moved to Charleston where got experience working on the waterfront. He was then hired as a deckhand when the civil war broke out. There he learned how to sail the ship and planned his escape. When the white officers left the ship to sleep, he executed his plan. He was able to sneak it past five Confederate harbor forts and put up a white flag so he could make it into Union territory safely.
Small’s civil rights activism did not stop there. Following the war Smalls became a South Carolina state senator and ultimately a member of the U.S. Congress. There he fought for African American civil rights during the Reconstruction era.
Unfortunately, Smalls died in 1915 having seen South Carolina roll back some of the post-Civil War gains he helped legislate during the Reconstruction era.
“My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere,” Smalls said. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Jackson says that Robert Smalls is a hero to him and thinks that this monument will make the State House grounds more inclusive for African-Americans. He also does not think the Confederate statues should be taken down because it is important to learn from history.
Bobby Donaldson, an African-American civil rights historian and USC history professor, said, “What do we achieve by the deletion of monuments?” Donaldson also believes that the statues are important to learn about the history of the struggle for civil rights, but stressed that context is important.
“If monuments are there to educate the public, then we should tell a complete narrative,” said Donaldson.
He says that the statue that honors the 19th century Gov. Benjamin Ryan “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman only shows one side of the story, and the plaque should describe his efforts against African-American rights during the Reconstruction error. Tillman was one of Small’s biggest political rivals and opposed civil rights for African-Americans throughout his career as politician.
“It is easy to get a bulldozer and take it down. It’s harder to come to grips with history,” said Donaldson.
Ty dePass, a social justice activist since the 1960s and member of Simple Justice – the Black Lives Matter chapter for Columbia – does not agree and thinks the Confederate Civil War monuments should be taken down immediately. “Statues and memorials are there to remind you of what you are proud of.”
He believes that history is meant for books and there is no need for monuments honoring Confederate soldiers. “No one wanted an Adolph Hitler statue after World War II,” dePass said. He believes these statues are a way for South Carolinians to honor their racist past instead of learning from it.
Following the national event of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last August, the statue debate still rages on.
Donaldson said he believes there has been significant advancement in race relations, but notes that there are still extremely impoverished areas and educational inequity affecting African-Americans in South Carolina.
This statue would join the African American History Monument at the Statehouse that was built in 2001 as a way to honor the bravery of African-Americans in South Carolina during the Civil War. This would be the second monument in South Carolina honoring Smalls. The other is in his hometown of Beaufort.