The PSC’s Stance on the Legacy of Historic Preservation as it Relates to Monuments
preservation-admin , June 26, 2020
In the wake of the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, our national focus has rightly turned to the deep-seated racism that continues to plague our nation. As institutions and organizations take stock of the past and the present and begin to focus on creating a better future, our work in historic preservation and advocacy has much it can contribute. This is particularly so in a city like Charleston, where history surrounds us in our buildings, our streetscapes, and, yes, our monuments.
History is not static and it is not always positive; Our views of the past and of our relationship to it are constantly evolving. Such dynamic and shifting perspectives enrich our understanding of the present and enhance our ability to work toward a better future. Amid these shifts, however, we must ensure that important lessons are learned and that conversation continues for future generations.
The discussion about the role of historic monuments is one about which we care deeply. After all, as Charleston attests, the built environment is a powerful embodiment of the historical record. However, monuments that were designed and erected to intimidate, cause pain, or symbolize hatred should be removed from the public realm. On June 23, 2020, Charleston’s City Council voted to remove the Calhoun Monument from Marion Square. The Preservation Society supported the removal and relocation of what, to many, is a symbol of oppression and racism. Given the Calhoun Monument’s controversial past, and present role in this pivotal moment in local and national history, we urge the City to carefully determine an appropriate site for interpretation of this monument that is significant in its representation of our city’s challenging history.
As preservationists, we advocate for care and caution in the weeks and months ahead as other emblems and representations of Charleston’s complex history fall under scrutiny. We encourage the telling of that history in its fullness, and supplementing our public realm with structures that bear witness to the African-American experience and the journey towards inclusiveness and equality in our city. The PSC has documented milestones in this journey through our Civil Rights Era historic markers installed throughout the city, and we are continuing to compile an interactive database (preservationsociety.org) of places where the fight for racial justice made meaningful progress in and around Charleston, such as the Cigar Factory and the home of the Cannon Street All Stars. While these and other initiatives contribute to telling Charleston’s full story, there is more that we can do, and we are actively listening. Our work doesn’t stop here. We look forward to sharing more initiatives and resources with you in the near future, while also inviting you to be a part of the conversation and to help us expand our reach.
The legacy of historic preservation in Charleston is not unblemished; like the history of our city, it contains contradictions and complexities. Where it is well-practiced, preservation confers many benefits: ordinances and public processes that support the needs of all residents, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods, an economy that is balanced and diverse, and a citizenry that is educated about the issues and empowered to have a voice in planning the look and feel of their city. In order for Charleston to thrive as a livable and equitable city, we need to amplify the voices of residents in decisions about the future, and we need to ensure that City policies and processes support all who call Charleston home. Success will be determined by meaningful, inclusive dialogue and thoughtful action. As an advocacy organization rooted in history but focused on the future of our community, we stand ready to support this effort.