COLUMBIA, S.C. — A call to honor a black Civil War hero with a monument at the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, onetime epicenter of a groundswell movement to rid communities of Confederate symbols, is being made by two lawmakers in a bid to encourage consensus-building in a nation divided by the issue.
Two state senators — a black Democrat and a white Republican — announced their proposal Wednesday to memorialize Robert Smalls, who in 1862 hijacked a Confederate supply ship he worked on, steered his family to freedom and delivered the ammunition-laden vessel to the Union. If approved, Smalls’ would be the first monument on Statehouse grounds to an individual African-American in South Carolina, which removed the Confederate flag from those grounds in 2015 after a mass shooting by an avowed white supremacist.5
“Robert Smalls was both a warrior and peacemaker, both a combative and kind man who accomplished incredible feats,” said Republican state Sen. Greg Gregory, who noted Smalls’ titles after the war included state lawmaker and five-term congressman. “Unfortunately, few people know of this man — one of our greatest citizens — and we’re seeking to change that.”
Moves to strip Confederate symbols from U.S. communities by those who see them as hated symbols of racism and slavery have triggered impassioned national debate and even violence like that arising from a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, over a Robert E. Lee statue. Others see such symbols as proud reminders of Southern heritage and ancestors who fought in the war.
In South Carolina, a 2000 legislative compromise that took the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse dome and put it beside a memorial on the Statehouse’s front lawn also built a monument that broadly portrays centuries of African-American history in the state. That compromise also removed rebel flags from both chambers and barred altering any public monument that honors historic figures or events without overwhelming legislative approval.
Still, the Confederate flag debate was far from settled. But lawmakers of both parties refused to revisit the issue until the 2015 death of nine black parishioners at a historic Charleston church prompted them to remove the flag altogether.
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