Charleston expected to remove statue of slavery advocate

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Officials in the historic city of Charleston, South Carolina, are expected to vote Tuesday for the removal of a statue of former vice president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun from a downtown square, the latest in a wave of such actions triggered by the death of George Floyd.

A majority of council members in the coastal city have said they support the resolution, which would bring the statue down from atop a 100-foot (30-meter) monument in downtown Marion Square, placing it permanently at “an appropriate site where it will be protected and preserved.”

The expected vote comes a week after Mayor John Tecklenburg announced he would send the resolution to the City Council. Word came during a news conference on the fifth anniversary of the slaying of nine Black parishioners in a racist attack at a downtown Charleston church and as other cities across the nation debate monuments to Confederates and other historical figures who repressed or oppressed other people.

“What a beautiful show of support from our City Council,” Tecklenburg said, adding that he was happy to see so many come together in the effort “not to erase our long and often tragic history but to begin to write a new and more equitable future.”

The final resting place of the statue of the former U.S. senator has not been determined, the decision left up to a special panel. The mayor has anticipated it would go to a local museum or educational institution.

The night Tecklenburg announced his plans, dozens of protesters linked arms around the monument, shouting, “Take it down!” Video posted on Twitter also showed signs and spray-painting on the monument. Police said they made several arrests for vandalism and ultimately closed off the area overnight.

In the heart of downtown Charleston, Calhoun towers over a sprawling square frequented by locals and tourists alike, and is used as a venue for numerous festivals and large public events. Several organizers have said in recent weeks that they would no longer use the space while the statue remained.

About 40% of enslaved Africans brought to North America came through the port city of Charleston, which in 2018 issued a formal apology for its role in the slave trade. In its resolution, the city said the statue, in place since 1898, “is seen by many people as something other than a memorial to the accomplishments of a South Carolina native, but rather a symbol glorifying slavery and as such, a painful reminder of the history of slavery in Charleston.”

Calhoun’s support of slavery never wavered, saying in several speeches on the U.S. Senate floor in the 1830s that slaves in the South were better off than free Blacks in the North and calling slavery a “positive good.”

Tecklenburg said the removal isn’t covered under South Carolina's Heritage Act, which protects historical monuments and names of buildings, as the monument is not on public property or in commemoration of one of the historical events listed in the act. According to the National Parks Service, the city technically leases the land where the monument sits, which “is to be kept open forever as a parade ground for the Sumter Guards and the Washington Light Infantry.”

Thus far, Tecklenburg’s interpretation has not been legally disputed. A two-thirds vote from the state General Assembly is required to make any changes under the Heritage Act, a tough task in a state where conservatives dominate the House and Senate, last used to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in 2015.

Several Black lawmakers are urging local governments and colleges to act on their own and defy the monument protection law because it carries no stated penalties and hasn’t faced a court challenge, and several are planning to do so.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.