I FIRST VISITED Charleston 50 years ago, as South Carolina celebrated the 300th anniversary of its birth in 1670. As a Harvard graduate student studying early American history, I hoped to write a dissertation on the beginnings of African enslavement in the colony, although my Ivy League mentors wondered if sufficient sources existed. While turning my research into a book, I fell in love with Charleston, except for one huge and forbidding public monument.
More than a century after black emancipation, a monstrous statue of John C. Calhoun still hovered over the old port city. Even after the Freedom Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, a leading mastermind of white supremacy retained a central place of honor, high above Marion Square. As I came to understand how deeply his defense of racial oligarchy was still rooted in the soil of the Lowcountry, I wondered if he would remain there forever.
Ever since Ozymandias named himself “King of Kings,” monuments have come and gone. In Biblical times, Samson pulled down the Philistine temple to Dagon, and in Reformation England, Protestant zealots decapitated figures of Catholic saints. In Revolutionary Manhattan, patriots toppled a statue of George III, melting it into musket balls for their independence struggle.
With the end of Reconstruction, Lost Cause elites reasserted local dominance. After renaming and landscaping the central green, they commissioned a Philadelphia sculptor to create a statue to adorn a new Calhoun memorial there. Plans again called for the pedestal to be graced with four allegorical figures—this time females representing History, Justice, Truth, and the Constitution. Only one of these figures arrived in time for the dedication of the long-delayed monument in April 1887 before a crowd of 20,000.
When unveiled, there stood a larger-than-life representation of the orator, wagging his right index finger at all who passed. But this bronze reincarnation, atop a granite pedestal, lasted less than a decade. Standard accounts attribute the statue’s brief life to shortcomings in the sculptor’s awkward work, but black South Carolinians remember its demise differently. After all, when Boundary Street in front of Marion Square had been renamed Calhoun Street, they kept calling it Boundary, or they purposefully referred to it as Killhoun Street.
Mamie Garvin Fields, born in Charleston in 1888, recalled that as a small black girl she often passed by the new Calhoun monument with her friends. “Our white city fathers wanted to keep what he stood for alive,” she recalled. So “they put up a life-size figure of John C. Calhoun preaching and stood it up on the Citadel Green, where it looked at you like another person in the park.” A photograph made in 1892 shows a group of neatly dressed black girls, posing respectfully near the granite base. But as Fields made clear, such school children sensed the statue’s true purpose.
“Blacks took the statue personally,” Fields claimed in her powerful memoir, Lemon Swamp, explaining ways in which Calhoun, though long dead, had haunted her childhood. “As you passed by, here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘N—, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.’”
Mamie and her friends “didn’t like it. We used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue—scratch up the coat, break the watch chain, try to knock off the nose—because he looked like he was telling you there was a place for ‘n—s’ and ‘n—s’ must stay there.” According to Fields: “Children and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn’t get to him. That’s where he stands today,” she concluded, “on a tall pedestal. He is so far away now until you can hardly tell what he looks like.”