Fort Mill Times

Opinion: S.C. monuments most likely will stay, but we can reshape the discussion

The monument to “slaves” whom the monument claims supported the Confederate Army in Confederate Park in the town of Fort Mill.
The monument to “slaves” whom the monument claims supported the Confederate Army in Confederate Park in the town of Fort Mill.

While other Southern cities and states may wrestle with the issue of Confederate monuments and memorials on display in public places, one thing is certain when it comes to South Carolina: A law called the S.C. Heritage Act prohibits the removal of such statues or displays without legislative approval.

It’s more likely the sun will drop from the sky during the next total eclipse than it is the S.C. General Assembly will change that law.

That doesn’t mean a robust debate on the issue won’t persist.

If anything, it seems to have intensified in the past couple of weeks since a clash between demonstrating white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville, Va., left a young woman dead. She was part of a crowd plowed into by a car driven by a neo-Nazi who has since been charged with murder. Two police officers patrolling from the air were killed when their helicopter crashed near the scene and many others were injured.

Public debate is healthy and often productive, but with this issue it seems to quickly devolve into a circular argument. Something like:

“I’m just defending my heritage.”

“Your heritage is racist and hateful.”

“The Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, but states’ rights.”

“But people were slaves.”

“There was slavery in the North, too.”

And so on.

An example of this unfolded on social media after The Herald ran a story last week about the monuments in Fort Mill’s Confederate Park.

There were some thoughtful comments, and those respectful exchanges should guide our discussion going forward. If we don’t find an off-ramp from the endless loop of blather, we can’t expect to arrive at a helpful place.

Fort Mill’s display, built 100 years ago on what was then private property and since acquired by the town, seems somewhat unique compared to others in our region and elsewhere. The diversity alone is notable. One of the four monuments honors “faithful slaves” who supported the Confederate Army and defended the home front. The others salute “Confederate soldiers,” “Confederate women,” and “Catawba Indians,” including those who fought for the Confederacy.

Even if it were legally possible, removing those statues would not mean they never existed.

That’s what makes complaints about attempting to “erase history” rather weak. We are in an age when as much information is available in the digital cloud as it is in books. History will always be there for those who want to learn about it.

In fact, education is where we should look for a compromise.

We’re talking about going beyond adding permanent explanations to exhibits, though that should be a part of it. In Fort Mill for example, Confederate Park, with its bandstand, would be a great place to have panel discussions on the monuments there. Let’s talk about the “faithful slaves” honored. Did they sincerely participate in the war effort, or were they coerced? Perhaps some of them were acting under the effects of what has come to be known as Stockholm Syndrome. Do we really know the intent of Samuel White when he put the statues up 100 years ago? What was the role of Catawba people in the war?

Let’s discuss it.

These are compelling topics and there is much to learn and talk about.

Local students have taken field trips to the park for years. Perhaps this should be a more formal part of Fort Mill school district curriculum. The Fort Mill History Museum already holds History Day events downtown and the museum and its staff, if properly funded. That could be a terrific resource for facilitating a deep intellectual exploration of slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War and its aftermath.

On Steele Street, in Fort Mill’s historically African-American Paradise community, is a modest monument to the George Fish Colored School, where black teenagers received a high school education during segregation. The institution is celebrated every now and then, but we should talk about it more often in the context of the Confederacy, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era.

Like the monuments themselves, the debate isn’t going away anytime soon. And if the conversation must continue, let’s at least make it constructive.