Two state senators are proposing a new statue on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds honoring Robert Smalls, a former slave who famously escaped with a Confederate ship and later became a congressman.
The proposal comes amid an ongoing national debate over the future or appropriateness of Confederate monuments on public property. The Statehouse complex has two Confederate-themed statues and another honoring former Gov. Wade Hampton III, who served as a general in the Confederate army. Another statue honors self-professed white supremacist former governor and senator Ben Tillman, who founded Clemson and Winthrop universities.
State Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Lancaster, said that this new idea is not a solution for Confederate monuments’ future.
“We all know that, over the last month, our country has seen much acrimony and even violence over historical monuments mostly concerning the Civil War and the Confederacy,” he told reporters in a Wednesday press conference. “And we’re here today not to present a cure all to that, but possibly a way forward.”
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said any monument teaches about history. “One of the things I’ve always believed is that monuments are there to tell a story. Some stories we are proud of, some we are not.”
Smalls was born into slavery around Beaufort and was a boat pilot on a Confederate transport ship. He won freedom for himself and his family by stealing the boat at night and piloting it out of Charleston harbor into the Union blockade in 1862. Smalls then served with the Union for the rest of the war.
After the Civil War, he was elected to the South Carolina House, state Senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican. He was an advocate for civil rights for former slaves. However, he lost his seat a decade after white supremacists regained control of state government following Reconstruction.
He died in Beaufort at the age of 75 on Feb. 23, 1915.
The senators said that the statue would be paid for with private donations. It would have to be approved by both houses of the state legislature and the governor.