Where are America’s memorials to pain of slavery, black resistance?

Updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu July 9, 2015

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Jon Hale, Robert Chase: Charleston has chance to ecreate itself as model for how nation remembers history of slavery and oppression

Confederate memorials abound, but there are few commemorating struggle of slaves and heroic African-Americans resisters in Jim Crow, civil rights era

Editor’s Note: Jon Hale is an education professor at the College of Charleston, and Robert T. Chase is a history professor at Stony Brook University, SUNY and the Former Public Historian Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture.

(CNN) —  

In the darkest hours before dawn on May 13, 1862, Robert M. Smalls and seven enslaved crewman commandeered Charleston’s Confederate ship, the CSS Planter.

Smalls – camouflaged with a stolen captain’s uniform – brazenly steered the Planter carrying these slaves and their families past two Confederate checkpoints, including Fort Sumter. At the very height of the Civil War, Smalls outwitted his masters and the Confederacy to deliver himself and 17 enslaved African-Americans from slavery to freedom.

Jon Hale
Jon Hale
Robert Chase
Courtesy Robert Chase
Robert Chase

Smalls would go on to serve in the South Carolina State legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, where he founded the Republican Party of South Carolina and authored legislation that provided the first free public school system in South Carolina, which was segregated by custom and then law.

Despite this unbelievable escape narrative and his political importance to South Carolina, Charleston offered no commemorative statue or marker to Robert M. Smalls until two years ago. It is only recently that Charleston has begun to finally commemorate such historic African-American figures as Denmark Vesey or the civil rights protesters of the 1960s with statues, placards and small memorials.

Each of these markers interrupt Charleston’s traditional narrative of the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, where emblems, street names and statues celebrate a falsely constructed Southern past that presents slavery as tranquil amid picturesque slave plantations; where secession is not defined as treason but as a matter of states’ rights; and where Confederate service is seen as honorable even as it brought the nation to Civil War over slavery.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this ideological mythology propped up the notion of the Old South’s “white nobility” while simultaneously erecting the violent, Jim Crow-era “New South,” with its lynching, segregation and voter disenfranchisement.

It was this “lost cause” version of history that inspired Dylan Roof’s recent terrorist assassinations at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Indeed, Roof’s own manifesto placed history at the center of this conflict.

“Some people feel as though the South is beyond saving, that we have too many blacks here,” Roof wrote. “To this I say look at history.”

The AME church is but one site among many throughout the South that now reflects the struggle over memorializing Charleston’s historic landscape. South Carolina legislators have votee to remove the Confederate battle flag from state grounds. They could do more. Charleston could serve as a national model for how we, as a nation, remember and commemorate the painful story of racial oppression and black resistance.

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To provide a public space for a counternarrative of black resistance, Charleston should erect a monument remembering slavery as a transatlantic genocide that pays homage to its victims and demonstrates that the city formally recognizes this painful history.

For example, the city was the nation’s largest slave port during the slave trade through which over 40% of all Africans that were brought to the United States in chains and bondage passed. Sullivan’s Island in Charleston served as the inverse and perverse of Ellis Island for thousands of enslaved Africans, introducing them not to freedom and opportunity, but to bondage and slave labor. But that island has no memorial to the slave trade and its profound significance to American history.

The city should erect a second monument commemorating black resistance to the racial oppression of both slavery and Jim Crow, as it is the home to a long history of the civil rights movement, including the Stono Rebellion of 1739, in which nearly 50 slaves began to attack local slave owners on their way to Spanish Florida, and, more recently, the home of the Briggs v. Elliot (1952) decision that served as one of the five court cases used in the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision.

The city should also rededicate itself to building an international African-American museum, which has been discussed by long-time mayor Joseph Riley.

The flag, of course, must go.

In 1861, the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander H. Stephens, offered this foundational explanation of the Confederate cause: “Its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”