Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Columbia Today: Symbol Of Southern House Divided

My travels begin anew. I’m taking off from my current hometown, Columbia, capital of South Carolina, cradle of the rebellion 150 years ago. When I moved here after 16 years in Massachusetts, culture shock nearly electrocuted me. Sure, I’m Southern born and bred, but in 1999 the Bay State and the Palmetto State occupied opposite ends of America’s cultural and political spectrum. It took some getting used to. It still does.

In the decade since I set up house in South Carolina, things have changed, even regarding the Civil War. As evidence, I offer Columbia itself. During the Civil War anniversary, people in The Capital City have been strangely silent about “The War Between the States.”

Some organizations are celebrating like it’s 1961, when the Civil War 100th anniversary took place, but most officials and groups remain quiet. The Sons of Confederate Veterans recently held a historically themed “Secession Ball” in Charleston. News reports centered on the controversy surrounding the event; that's been the lion's share of anniversary events commentary.

When it comes to the Civil War, South Carolina, like the South, apparently is a house divided. Columbia symbolizes this modern schism.

Consider this:
· The S.C. State House grounds, 18 acres dominating Columbia’s downtown, epitomize the crosscurrents of change. At the building’s north entrance, the 30-foot Confederate Monument, erected in 1879, and adjacent Confederate flag on a 20-foot pole dominate the scene.

The state legislature decreed the flag should fly atop the State House dome in the early sixties, during the Civil War Centennial, as the Civil Rights movement unfolded. It flew there until 2000, when protracted protests swelled. (Photo top right.) In a compromise, the flag now flies at the monument.

Protests continue, especially on the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. (South Carolina was the last state to make the day a paid state holiday.) On the annual Confederate Memorial Day in May, re-enactors guard the monument. (Photo at right.)

· Another aspect of the compromise about the flag was agreement to build a privately funded African American History Monument (photo right) near the State House visitor entrance. Twelve bronze panels depict powerful scenes of S.C. history. A replica of a slave boat and rubbing stones from regions of Africa where S.C.-bound slaves were captured provide moving commentary. The state dedicated the monument in 2001.

This 25-foot curved wall now stands amid statues of state leaders who variously championed the Confederacy, status quo during the Civil Rights movement, and roadblocks to social, cultural and political change.

Go to PHOTO page for more on Columbia, S.C., Symbol of A Fading Confederacy. The photos include the Confederate Printing Plant, now a Publix supermarket at Gervais and Huger streets, and the historic First Baptist Church, where leaders met in 1860 to debate the S.C. Order of Secession, later adopted in Charleston.

I’ll have more on Columbia later, as the April anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter approaches.


QUESTION: Do you think the Civil War embarrasses Southerners?
Please go to COMMENT page to respond.
Shirt from MLK Day 2000
Here's food for thought in an excerpt from my book-in-progress:
My newfound blood ties to the Civil War and my recent move from Massachusetts to South Carolina provided a catalyst. I needed answers to questions that had long dogged me, and now, as Robert Penn Warren put it, invaded my personal present.

I returned south at the dawn of the millennium from the Bay State, where I moved with my husband early in our marriage. We lived there sixteen years. In Massachusetts, I constantly was reminded of my Southerness, my otherness. No more than two days ever passed that a perfect stranger, hearing my accent, didn't ask where I was from, as if the way I talked invited scrutiny and suspicion.

To my friends in Massachusetts, polar opposite state from South Carolina, the proper side won the Civil War, which was waged because of the South's treason and slavery. They saw Sherman as a hero. I gradually accepted much of their point of view; it had been stealthily advancing on me long before I left North Carolina. Still, I felt like a traitor.

But coming to the cradle of the rebellion, I felt separate from the culture and isolated from neighbors with southern accents that now actually sounded strange to me. I longed for something beyond the knee-jerk answers I'd heard growing up to long-standing questions: Did the average Confederate fight to defend slavery or to preserve agrarian virtues and the most stable way of life? Was Sherman’s March a noble cause, necessary to end the war, or did Sherman inflict gratuitous pain on civilians and spiritually divide America forever?

And now, this question: Wouldn't it be best for the country if we just put the Civil War behind us or at least quit glorifying it?