Despite public criticism on social media of the decision to cancel a Civil War-era event at Historic Brattonsville, a York County museum leader said he stands by his call.
Carey Tilley, executive director of the Culture & Heritage Museums of York County, said Tuesday that public reaction has been mostly disappointment that the October event will not be held at the McConnells site.
On The Herald’s Facebook page, numerous posters criticized York County museum leaders for calling off the event. Some said they had enjoyed attending in the past with their families. Others pointed out that a lack of historical accuracy, one of the reasons given for not holding it this year, has not been a problem in the past.
Tilley said Tuesday he stands by his decision because the event was not an account of an actual battle in York County or at Brattonsville. He said it did not include the African-American experience so “we are only telling part of the story.”
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There was no specific threat of violence or protest that led to his call, Tilley said. But he said the national political climate after the violence in August in Charlottesville, Va., means the risk is much higher.
“It was difficult to measure the risk, but it was elevated,” Tilley said at a Tuesday news conference at the Museum of York County in Rock Hill. “We had to ask, are we prepared to handle anything that might happen?”
Plans were for the Sixth Regiment South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and the museum to host a battle event Oct. 27-29 at Hightower Hall, on the restored Brattonsville plantation in western York County. The event features a battle skirmish between Confederate and Union troops.
Former event sponsor Vernon Terry with his wife, Ann, said up to 300 re-enactors from along the East Coast, from Florida to New Jersey, come to the York County event. He called many Tuesday to let them know it would not happen.
“Everybody’s disappointed,” Terry said. “It’s sad they’re canceling (re-enactments) all over the East Coast and taking down our statues. It’s just real sad.”
Terry said the Brattonsville event does not portray a specific battle. He said it’s about educating and showing what it was like in the 1860s.
“These are my blood,” Terry said, referring to his ancestors. “To me, personally, I’m carrying on what my ancestors did and the real history of the war. I want to tell the facts of the war the way it actually was. It’s perception that has us where we are today.”
Re-enactor Mike Short of Fort Mill, with the Sixth Regiment, said he has been doing such events for 18 to 20 years, and there has never been a problem.
“We have never had an incident,” Short said.
He said the York County re-enactment started about 30 years ago next to Historic Brattonsville on the private land of Judge Samuel B. Mendenhall, a former state representative and senator. When Mendenhall died, which records show was in 1999, Short said the museum acquired his land and the annual re-enactment continued.
Steve Love, president of the western York County branch of the NAACP, supports Tilley’s decision. He said many black leaders in western York County have for years been against the Brattonsville display.
“For too long, black history has not been told,” Love said. “Slavery was not a choice, it was bondage.”
James Duncan, chairman of the Culture & Heritage Museums board of commissioners, said public safety is “paramount.” He also said a more comprehensive program in the future would be historically accurate.
Tilley said the event did not include any Civil War-era African-American history or any representation of plantation life.
“The event as it was doesn’t match up with our mission as much as we would like,” Tilley said. “We were missing an opportunity to go into what actually went on at the plantation during the Civil War. It would be difficult to justify if there was protest.”
Tilley said the Civil War history deserves to be told, but he said the battle re-enactment is only part of it.
“Going forward, we’d like to do this, but add more about what was happening on the plantation itself,” he said during the press conference. “We’ve got a story to explore there. We’re going to need to reach out to the African-American community to tell their story.”
Tilley said about 1,000 people would attend the annual event, though numbers had been dropping.
“We want to have a stronger program next year,” he said.
Not all reaction to the decision has been negative. Marie Cheek with the museum said that while she has fielded a half-dozen “disgruntled” calls and a few emails, on the museum Facebook page the response has been favorable.
The Rev. Anthony Johnson, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in McConnells near Brattonsville, a church founded by slaves and former slaves, said canceling the re-enactment doesn’t solve any problems.
Johnson said the cancellation shows a “fear” in America and a state of society where there is the potential for trouble at almost every turn.
“Even though there was no battle at Brattonsville, there was still a plantation at Brattonsville, and the black people here were part of that,” said Johnson, a past president of the Rock Hill NAACP.
“Mount Zion was birthed out of that plantation,” he said. “That plantation is a part of history. These battles are a part of history, and serve as a reminder of those days.”
Mount Zion members and others, earlier this month, participated in a “By the Sweat of Our Brows” event that portrayed slave life at Brattonsville, Johnson said.
“Slavery is the ugliest part of America’s history, a scar that never heals,” Johnson said. “But the people here embrace their history. What happened in those times of slavery and the Civil War happened.”