Yesterday, we had the pleasure of taking a personal tour throughout Charleston. Our guide was Kerry Taylor, a labor historian from The Citadel, and we were able to visit the monument of Denmark Vesey in Hampton Park, the Charleston waterfront to see the rich extravagant houses where the rich plantation owners lived, the Old Slave Mart, the Medical University of South Carolina and Mother Emanuel Church. After our tour, we stopped for lunch and then spent the afternoon talking to some of the civil right’s veterans who were influential pieces of the 1969 health care workers strike at the medical school.
One of the more powerful moments of the day came when we visited Mother Emanuel AME Church, which is where Dylan Roof carried out his massacre. In one of the many responses to the massacre that took nine lives, community leaders and activists from across South Carolina are planning to hold a march dubbed the “Days of Grace,” which will go from Columbia to Charleston. The sidewalk outside the church has become a makeshift shrine hundreds of candles and flowers stretching the length of the sidewalk with four signs and banners where thousands of people have signed their names giving their condolences to the church. Personally seeing what has transpired outside the church and what we have seen on our tour had me thinking about how the city has honored racists through parks and monuments.
The first stop of our day was the much contested and controversial Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park. According to the story, Denamrk Vesey was a free black man who won a street lottery that brought him his freedom from slavery. The man was able to read and write and became a leader within the Mother Emanuel AME community. He and thirty-four others were hung for conspiring a slave rebellion that would have killed the local plantars and send the freed slaves, supposedly, to the island of Haiti. According to many in the African American community, he has been seen as a liberator and freedom fighter, but to those in the white community, he is seen as a terrorist. These divides and the views of the local white population prevented the Black population from erecting a statue of Vesey until a year and half ago, but here is the irony. The park, Hampton Park, which is located a sizable distance outside of Charleston, is named after Governor Wade Hampton, a racist segregationist who supported an organization called the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts were a sibling organization to the Ku Klux Klan and they were responsible for ending Reconstruction in the Southern United States.
If that is not ironic enough, there is more irony surrounding the Denmark Vesey statue. The Vesey monument, as stated above, is located a couple of miles outside of Charleston’s central shopping district. Community leaders and activists originally wanted the statue located in the central Marion Park, which the white population opposed. However, there is a statue of John C. Calhoun sitting on top a 60 foot pillar in the middle of the park. President Calhoun can be described as an ardent supporter of “states rights,” which was used by forces opposing Reconstruction to ultimately end the era and bring upon the Jim Crow Era. Calhoun’s legacy still haunts this country to this very day, when it comes to pushing restrictive Voter ID bills, attacking LGBTQ rights and more.
Later on in the afternoon, we were able to interview some of the veterans of the civil rights movement and the famous 1969 SEIU 1199B strike. For the past several weeks, I have been in contact with Louise Brown, an 80 year old great grandmother, about her involvement in the strike and who she’d be able to bring to the union hall where we were conducting our interviews, and did she ever. Along side Louise, Bill Saunders, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, and Jack Bradford who drove from Charlotte to Charleston to talk to the program.
According to Bill Saunders, who was one of the main organizers, the lead up to the strike began in 1967 when the Medical University of South Carolina fired 6 workers for insubordination. At that moment, nurses, healthcare workers and community members were meeting on a weekly basis for two years, when Louise Brown and 11 of her other co-workers were fired for insubordination. According to Jack Bradford, the union local vice president, those firings sparked the four month strike, but the workers did not go without pay or food on the table. Louise Brown explained to us that the International Longshoremen Association – the union who hosted us – and other unions were able to give those workers the essentials they needed to get by. When the strike ended, they were not able to form a union or collectively bargain, but they viewed the strike as a victory for the community because Louise and her 11 co-workers were rehired and the workers got the respect, dignity and benefits they demand.
Later on today, we will be travelling to Savannah, Georgia to talk to truck port drivers who have been striking on and off for two years because of work conditions and pay.