Remarks Delivered on the Occasion of the Unveiling of Historic Marker Commemorating the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention
2:30 pm, March 16th, 2018
Corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, Charleston, South Carolina
Ehren Foley, historian with the National Register of Historic Places Program
I am extremely gratified to be here today and to remember the events that occurred on this spot 150 years ago. I am not sure if this marks the end of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that began here in Charleston some eight years ago, or if it marks the beginning of a new public memory of Reconstruction, one that will find voice at this conference and at the newly established Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort. Maybe a bit of both.
It is fitting that we meet here in Charleston, not only because this is where the convention met, but also because this is a city with a long tradition of remembering its past. We look around the city and we are confronted constantly with stories about the past. Or, at least, certain stories about the past, because Charleston also has a long history of forgetting, and the stories left untold are at least as abundant as the ones that are. It would be untrue, however, to say that the story of Reconstruction has simply been forgotten these past 150 years. For much of that time white South Carolinians remembered Reconstruction too well, or, at least, a certain narrative about that period, and used that story as a justification for racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of more than half of the state’s population. There was no room in that memory to celebrate the Constitution of 1868 or the promise that it held for racial and social progress.
Today we take one step to insert that story into Charleston’s public memory. But we fool ourselves if we think that we exist outside of history or that our monuments can speak for all-time any more so than can the monuments of past generations. If we had less hubris perhaps we would make our monuments of lesser stock than granite or aluminum, so that they would fade slowly from the landscape, as we all are destined to do, and leave future generations less encumbered by our words, if not our actions. Absent that, we can at least do our best to be honest and act as good stewards of our past, because we know, Charleston knows, better than most places, the power of the past to encumber; to spur division, hatred, and violence. As we stand in the shadow of the federal courthouse where Dylann Roof was recently convicted of the murder of nine souls, we remember the power of bad history to produce evil outcomes.
But the past can empower, as well as encumber. It can remind us that, 150 years ago, Black men across South Carolina, nearly all of them former slaves, cast ballots for the first time. That 150 years ago, those newly enfranchised voters elected a group of delegates, the majority of them Black, who met on this spot to rewrite the state’s fundamental law. That 150 years ago, South Carolina embarked on an experiment in biracial democracy that held out the promise of civil equality and access to education for all, regardless of race.
There is promise in that story. If so much progress was possible 150 years ago, then we can know that progress is also possible in our time. But we are also reminded that after 1868 came 1895; that history is not linear; that revolutions can go backwards; and that the road towards progress is a long and trying one. But if Charleston can make room in its public memory to include a celebration of the Constitution of 1868, then I will take that as a small measure of progress for this day. Thank you.
Dr. Bruce Baker, history lecturer at Newcastle University
Constitutional conventions are an important part of democracy. They embody the basic idea that, as Thomas Rainsborough said in 1647 during the English Civil War, “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” That is exactly what a constitutional convention does: it allows those who are going to live under a government to take part in shaping the basic principles of that government.
South Carolina has had a number of constitutions. Those of you who have lived in South Carolina or followed South Carolina politics for some time will not be surprised to learn that it has not been a steady march of progress towards ever greater freedom. The Provincial Congress of South Carolina adopted the state’s first constitution in 1776 but did not submit it to the people for ratification. While the 1776 constitution had allowed all men who owned land to vote, the 1778 constitution that replaced it required that they own at least fifty acres of land. Another constitution was adopted in 1790, and that one stayed in place until South Carolina left the United States in 1860 and adopted a new constitution to fit in with its new place within the so-called Confederate States of America on April 8, 1861. After four years of education about the difficulties of setting up a new nation courtesy of the United States army and navy, and those within South Carolina who had previously been enslaved and those who continued to consider themselves citizens of the United States, there was a need for a new constitution. President Andrew Johnson wanted to bring the states of the so-called Confederacy back into normal relations with the United States government and to end the war powers which had the capacity to effect radical changes in the South, so he appointed provisional governors. A new state constitution was written in 1865 to acknowledge the end of slavery, but it did little to change the aristocratic nature of South Carolina’s government, and its provisions tried to ensure that as little as possible changed in the lives of black South Carolinians.
All this changed after the Radical Republicans gained a huge majority in the Congressional elections of 1866. In March 1867, the Reconstruction Acts were passed, requiring southern states to create new constitutions in order to be readmitted to Congress. What was different this time was that former Confederates were disfranchised and the constitution had to be written by “a convention of delegates elected by the male citizens of said State, twenty-one years old and upward, of whatever race, color, or previous condition.” The election for the South Carolina constitutional convention was held on November 19 and 20, 1867. For the first time in South Carolina’s history, black men voted in an election. Most whites registered to vote but then stayed away from the polls, trying to defeat the constitution by making sure that fewer than 50% of the registered voters participated in the election. But over 90% of black men who were registered voted, and the convention was held from January 14 to March 17, 1868. 49 of the delegates were white, with two thirds of those being originally from the South. The remaining 72 delegates were African American, and over half of them had been enslaved at the beginning of the war. It was by a very long shot the most democratic political body ever assembled in South Carolina, though it would be another fifty years before women were allowed to vote.
The Constitution that they wrote created modern South Carolina. It gave women much greater freedom than ever before by being able to control their own wealth and to get divorced. It created a public school system that was open to all students, whatever their race. It shored up support of the university and mandated the creation of a normal school for educating teachers and an agricultural college for education farmers and mechanics. It provided support for citizens who were blind or deaf or mentally ill. No one could be imprisoned for being in debt, and people could hold public office whether or not they owned property.
Dr. Bernard Powers, professor of history at the College of Charleston
William Faulkner’s now famous quote : “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” has special application in Charleston. This is a city where visitors and residents constantly, usually effortlessly and even thoughtlessly move between past and present routinely. Sometimes we’ll step away from our routines and this applies particularly to people such as yourselves, and in moments of reflection we will take note of some of the more striking places where this connection between past and present appears with poignancy. For example right here we stand proximate to St. Michael’s Church, an iconic building in the Charleston landscape. But it is a building partially constructed by slave brick layers. One of the men who rang the bells here for decades, Washington McLean Gadsden, began doing so as a slave. I love to hear the bells of St. Michaels but in the antebellum years, when they rang in late evening those bells sounded the curfew for slaves to be off the streets. Knowing that history doesn’t diminish the music’s beauty; it gives the listener even greater appreciation for it. It is an argument for telling the whole story.
There are special places in this city that allow you to hear and feel things that you cannot in other places. Every year in the fall we have a MOJA Festival in Charleston which celebrates the African Arts of the Western Hemisphere. One of the special locations is behind the Customs House on East Bay Street.
During MOJA some of the celebrations occur back there and when the musicians begin to play the conga drums and you look toward the water and that rhythm begins to touch you and you begin to feel something akin to the thrill the young W. E. B. DuBois felt when he first heard the spirituals. And you recognize the sound and the feeling as the siren call of the African ancestors who still long for recognition, veneration and a proper place.
As you move about the city to other places and you stop, look and listen; you will readily observe that something is missing. You’ll maybe experience not voices but deafening silences from other parts of Charleston’s landscape and those silences must be filled. Fortunately I can say that substance has replaced some of the absences. I can remember in the mid-1970s taking house tours in the city where if they were referred to at all, slaves were typically called servants and out at Fort Sumter you learned more about tariffs as the cause of the Civil War than about slavery. Fortunately, these things have changed dramatically over the decades. In recent years a collectivity of public institutions, individuals, community groups, preservation oriented organizations and elements in the city government itself, have mounted an effort to give voice to those silences, to tell a more comprehensive story about Charleston’s history. There are various markers in the historic district identifying important sites from the slave trade, to the Civil War to the civil rights era. The city now runs the Old Slave Mart Museum and is an important force behind the International African American Museum. It hasn’t been easy; there have been many discouraging moments, even years. It took a broad coalition of people almost 20 years of protracted effort to finally get the Denmark Vesey Monument erected at Hampton Park, a place where over 200 Union soldiers were once buried. The CLAW Program has always been in the avant garde of these efforts providing support and encouragement. Now the conference “Freedoms Gained and Lost” devoted to Reconstruction continues in that same vein to address one of the city’s most deafening and important silences. The marker will permanently recognize the era’s bold experiment in interracial democracy and let it encourage us to continue the struggle to achieve its highest ideals and that “new birth of freedom” for which so many lived and died.
Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum
Robert Smalls participated in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868, most notably, by offering legislation that created here in SC the first, free, compulsory, statewide public school system in America. It is legislation that, to this day, stands as the prevailing law. There are many stories passed down through the generations of our family that speak to Robert’s fundamental commitment to education. It is said that it pained him deeply that he was legally prevented from learning to read and write as a youngster. After he won his freedom, one of the very first things he did with his reward money was to buy the services of two tutors who taught him: one, first thing in the morning and then another when he returned home in the evening. Beyond that, he ensured that his children were also exposed to the best education available. In fact, my great grandmother, Elizabeth, was sent all the way from her home in Beaufort, SC to The Allen School in West Newton, Massachusetts as a young girl in the early 1870’s in search of the best education available to her. In an event that, incredibly, people are still talking about, on July 4, 1872 – Elizabeth read the Declaration of Independence in the public square in Beaufort. 2,000 freedmen – it is said – were in awe of this little girl and, at that moment, understood the power of education. At a time when most could not read, and when it was exceedingly rare for a young girl to be able to do so, Elizabeth read that document with pristine diction and clarity – an attribute that she became known for throughout her life. This reading was a testament to the focus on education that has been in my family for generations, and continues to this day. After Robert – who was the first in our family able to access education of any kind, all of my parents and grandparents were educators who earned PhD’s – three from Ivy League institutions, and my great grandfather – Samuel Jones Bampfield from Charleston – earned a law degree from Lincoln University in 1872. Perhaps the smartest of them all was my maternal grandmother who did so well throughout her college career that she was exempted from taking finals her last year. DNA testing tells us that we are descended from Mende people in Sierra Leone. They are known to have a focus on education. Who knows if what drove Robert and what has become a part of our family to this day is a literal part of our DNA – flowing through our veins from our days in Africa but Robert certainly activated that predilection at the earliest opportunity. The Constitutional Convention of 1868 was a time when Robert Smalls gave voice to his aspirations around education – desperately wanting to instill in others what he aspired to himself. At a time when formerly enslaved people were coming out of the cocoon of slavery, 1868 was an early time when the laws – at least for a while – provided a more even societal platform. Robert Smalls had an indelible hand in that effort.