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The African American History Monument

301 Gervais Street


In March of 2001, an event of note took place with the dedication of an African-American History Monument on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol. State senator Darrell Jackson called it “a reflection of what can be done when all citizens work together in unity” (Bauerlein, “There are so many things,” 2001, A1, 12). The African-American Monument, the first such structure to be built on the grounds of a state capitol, had its genesis in a 1994 proposal for a state Heritage Act. Republican State Senator John Courson wrote the Heritage Act in an attempt to develop a compromise that would remove the Confederate flag from the State House dome. The legislation passed the state Senate but failed in the House. Two years later the state Senate passed another piece of legislation to create a monument, but the House refused to consider the bill. Two state senators, Darrell Jackson, an African-American Democrat, and Glenn McConnell, a white Republican, then tied the bill to an economic development proposal that Governor Beasley favored. Beasley responded by calling the legislature into special session, and the House passed both bills.

The legislature set up a Commission to oversee the project, but its members had widely varying views on the project and how to proceed. There was much disagreement on even the content of the Monument’s panels. The chair of the Commission, state senator Glenn McConnell, was a strong supporter of the Confederate flag. One member was a legislator who had voted against the project. The vice chair, representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, was an advocate for the rights of African-Americans. She was also the member often described as the moving force behind the project (Davis, 2002). Cobb-Hunter had strong feelings about the project, stating at one point that some commission members were trying to destroy the project. The Monument project inevitably became entwined with the ongoing battle over the Confederate flag, which resurfaced virtually every year. With feelings over the flag running high and legislators unable to agree on a compromise concerning the removal of the flag from the State House dome, Senator Jackson at one point demanded that Senator McConnell resign from the Monument Commission (Harris “Cobb-Hunter,” 2001, A12).

Despite the acrimony, the project went forward. With some help from the South Carolina Arts Commission, a volunteer Citizens’ Advisory Committee chaired by art educator Mac Arthur Goodwin designed a prospectus. The project was advertised in national publications. Artists from all over the country and even abroad were eager to design the African-American Monument. More than forty artists submitted proposals, including several South Carolinians. The Citizens’ Advisory Committee narrowed the group down to three finalists who met with both the African-American Monument Commission and the Citizens’ Advisory Committee. Both groups were in accord, choosing Ed Dwight of Denver, Colorado. In the words of one member of the Monument Commission, the quality of Dwight’s sculpture, or his “ability to sculpt,” stood out (Davis, 2002). Dwight’s other work includes a ten-foot tall statue of baseball player Hank Aaron in Atlanta (Crumbo, 2002, A8). The Citizens’ Advisory Committee worked with Ed Dwight on the plan for the Monument.

In the beginning, Ed Dwight intended to represent specific people in South Carolina’s history in his designs, but the Commission asked that he not do so. In part this was a political decision, intended to avoid controversy. For example, one panel, dubbed the “conspiracy panel,” represents the activities of people like Denmark Vesey, a controversial figure in South Carolina’s history (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A18; Davis, 2002). Vesey was a former slave who bought his own freedom after winning a lottery. The leader of a failed slave revolt in 1822, he was executed after his capture. Dwight originally intended to include a statue of Vesey, as well as a panel that showed the Ku Klux Klan lynching blacks and burning crosses. Ultimately, Dwight was asked to simply design panels that would symbolize various periods in history, rather than specific persons. He also substituted words for the images of the Klan (Bauerlein, “Granite, bronze,” 2001, A18). Pictures of these panels can be viewed at the end of this article.

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