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SOUTH CAROLINA: Honoring Americans, ALL Americans

Jack Hitt

This essay is based on a very provocative essay by Jack Hitt published in Reuters. Mr. Hitt is a native of Charleston, South Carolina.  Mr. Hitt is the author of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.

While most Americans mourn the Charleston 9, tearing down the hateful flag was a small and much belated step.  Even this  has hurt the real feelings of some white Southerners who want to feel pride in their heritage.

Let me suggest another way.  Even though my ancestors have been here for only about a century, I have adopted  the forefathers .. Jefferson especially .. as my own.  Jefferson did not own Jews but he was antisemitic.  Can African Americans set aside slavery and accept all the great things this Southern hero did?  Can they revel in a shred heritage built around the great deedd of OUR founding fathers?  .

Of course the same question must apply to white Americans.  My own brother in law, William Quick. has shown huge pride in his adopted state of South Carolina and gets very defensive when I write on TA about his state.  He has a good point.  Why shouldn’t the Jews of South Carolina, for example, be very proud of the history of their state as one of the first places that let us live as Jews or that Judah Philip Benjamin, a one time resident of Charleston,  became a Confederate cabinet officer and freed the slaves willing to fight for the south before Lincoln reluctantly issued the Emancipation Proclamation?

This question brings me to a great idea in an essay by Jack Hitt.  Rather than demonizing the South, why not honor the South by erecting memorials to its Black heroes  alongside the heroes of the Confederacy?   Can all Southerners find a common heritage?

Black kids may be showing the way.   Black students now pridefully attend Charleston’s military high school, The Citadel.  The Citadel was built to defend the white community from slave rebellions. If Black kids can show this pride, why couldn’t white kids be as proud of attending Charleston College?  I actually suggested this idea here on TA… Would white kids be proud to attend Cato College if the school were renamed to honor Jeremiah Cato, the leader of the first slave revolt in the South?

ESSAY BY JOHN Hitt: (abstracted) Keep the Confederate memorials standing. Honor their sacrifice. But honor the valor of these slave heroes as well.  

Doesn’t that somehow fit aptly into the reaction to the Charleston massacre — to those families of the dead telling a fuming, ignorant racist to his face that they forgive him? Close the chasm. Let the monuments, the statuary and the streets of the South start to tell the rest of the story.

And why not simply add more statues? The best thing about parks is that there’s always room for one more bust. Having grown up in Charleston, I know there are many African-American heroes from this period who have gone unacknowledged.

Denmark Vesey was one of the early 19th century’s most astonishing slaves. He bought his freedom after winning a lottery — seriously. He is alleged to have organized the most mythic — and failed — slave revolt of that time (although there’s compelling evidence it was all rumor).

But Vesey also foresaw the basic need for an African-American right to assembly — the first step that would eventually march to 1964 and the landmark Civil Rights Act. So he helped found an all-black church, Emanuel AMC on Calhoun Street — the very one Dylann Roof entered on June 17. An attempt not long ago to have a statue of him stand near Calhoun’s in the prominent Marion Square failed, and Vesey’s statue was marooned uptown at Hampton Park. Let’s rethink that decision.

Similarly, why eliminate street names that tell one part of Southern history when we can amplify them to tell even more of it? Charleston is the home of the Heyward-Washington House and the Aiken-Rhett House — hyphenation is not just a thing. It’s a tradition.

Robert_Smalls_-_Brady-Handy

Smalls returned to South Carolina after the war and got elected to the House of Representatives, where he became a key advocate for public education. He eventually purchased the house in which he had once been a slave.

Smalls-Calhoun Street would be an avenue for cars, sure, but also for history. Every mention of the street would be an invitation to understand the narrative of a place that for too long told only one revisionist half of it.


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