On Pendleton Street next to the University of South Carolina is a wooden house flanked by magnolia trees, the peeling paint so weathered it’s unclear what color it used to be.
Last weekend, about 50 people stood out front on the grass and sidewalk as a proclamation from the South Carolina Senate was read and a group of children pulled the black cloth off a new historic marker out front.
The ceremony was the most Columbia of scenes. Descendants of the enslaved people who’d built the house mingled cautiously with the white families who’d previously owned the house. Peggy McMaster, wife of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, handed out cookies and lemonade on the house’s lower porch, clad in flowered leggings. (The McMasters bought the McCord House a few years ago; it’s one of several they own and rent out in the leafy neighborhoods surrounding the University of South Carolina.)
Jackie Whitmore is one of those descendants, and campaigned for the marker, which is funded by the Richland County Conservation Commission. Whitmore, who lives in Columbia, is one of several hundred descendants of people enslaved at Lang Syne who assembled in South Carolina over the weekend for what’s called the United Family Reunion.
“It is very, very strange,” he told the crowd. “I attended Allen University down the street from here, and I attended the University of South Carolina College of Social Work and took classes in DeSaussure and other buildings directly in front of this house.” He didn’t know then that his forebears had been ordered to build it.
Whitmore told Free Times the goal of the historic marker is to “acknowledge that the people had a role in the building of the city.”
He compares the effort with what happened recently in the City of Charleston, where City Council voted June 19 to acknowledge and apologize for its role in slavery.
“Charleston has certainly chronicled African-Americans’ contribution to building that city,” Whitmore says. “We don’t have that here in Columbia. We only have a few notes of that.”
Whether it’s slavery, civil rights, or the Confederate monuments on the State House grounds, Whitmore says, we need to know — and tell — more about how Columbia came to be.
“We only know one side of the story,” he says. “The few remnants of African-American history in Columbia, they tore it all down. They discarded it. Every time you look they’re tearing more of it down.”
Charleston’s recent apology isn’t just on Whitmore’s mind. It’s got officials and institutions across the country talking.
But when asked whether Columbia has a similar responsibility, even the city’s black mayor is cautious. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin suggests Columbia’s not going down the Charleston path anytime soon.
“I think it’s fair to say that most governments at all levels, federal, state and local, were complicit in the slave trade for much of our history — which would include, of course, Columbia.” Charleston’s role, though, he says, “is pretty singular.”
Benjamin also doesn’t fault Charleston City Council for voting so narrowly on the issue. (The resolution barely passed, just 7-5.)
“I think there’s an incredible desire to look to the future. Some people never want to recognize the challenge of the past, but I also believe there are a lot of well-meaning people who would much rather remain focused on the future,” he says, noting that he hasn’t spoken to anyone on the Charleston council about it.
Is Charleston unique? Or should Columbia, just a few hours away and the capital of the state, be looking to its own responsibility for slavery? The answers aren’t easy to come by.