On a grand pedestal high over the public square in the center of Orangeburg, where my wife and I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, stands the statue of an anonymous Confederate soldier, facing south.
I grew up with it but paid it little attention. I didn’t revere it or hate it; I just thought it was nice and a fitting way to remember the Confederate war dead. It was a fixture of my upbringing, like the giant Greek revival First Baptist Church that dominated the town square to the east.
The war monument was dedicated in 1893. The white women of the county led a seven-year fundraising drive to raise the $7,000 needed. The statue was cast in Massachusetts.
In 1910 about 250 Confederate veterans marched up main street to the square and the foot of the memorial. For this veterans’ day event, it is reported there were political speeches, public ceremonies and a band. It would be interesting to know what was said. Reconstruction ended by the 1880s, and the Jim Crow noose was already tight by 1910.
I have thought a lot about that memorial lately. How could I not? I think I know what should be done.
I don’t think our town needed that statue to enforce segregation and white supremacy. There was an abundance of racial prejudice and miscegenation fear-mongering to carry that project forward.
And to the best of my limited knowledge, the town’s blacks did not need that statue to organize a long string of civil rights marches, protests and demands, vigorously challenging school segregation and other discrimination, all of which crescendoed in the horrendous shooting of South Carolina State College students by state troopers in 1968. The Orangeburg Massacre killed three young black men and wounded 28 others, some of them shot in the bottoms of their feet as they hit the ground to avoid the fusillade.
Yet, even if I am correct that the Orangeburg memorial was more sentinel than symbol historically, these memorials are certainly offensive to blacks and many others who rightly see them as monuments to slavery and segregation, white supremacy, racial division and bitter war.
Taking them down and tucking them away somewhere is surely one good option. That is an easy decision, the least that should be done, similar to the wide agreement not to fly the Confederate Stars and Bars.
But perhaps there is something better my hometown could do: a statue memorializing the black mothers and fathers living near Orangeburg who bravely organized the legal action challenging school segregation, a lawsuit that was actually the central case among those consolidated under the name Brown vs. Board of Education. It would honor the difficult and often brutal struggle to free a people and a society of slavery and its long, ongoing legacy and, even more, it would join in the emphatic assertion that whites are not superior to blacks, nor men to women, nor native-born to immigrant, nor man to nature.