University of South Carolina adds context to its history
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — As some Southern universities grapple with uncomfortable truths about their histories, struggling with calls to rename or remove memorials and monuments to figures related to slavery and the Confederacy, the University of South Carolina is taking a different approach.
On Wednesday, the school unveils its tribute to Richard T. Greener, its first black professor and among the first black graduates of its law school. University officials say the bronze likeness of Greener is more than just the first-ever statue on the system’s flagship campus in Columbia.
Instead, it’s emblematic of what they see as a more holistic approach to acknowledging the history of a centuries-old institution that has some of its roots in the Confederacy and slave-owning culture: adding context to, rather than removing, parts of its history it cannot change.
In December, South Carolina unveiled two long-planned plaques honoring enslaved men and women who helped build or worked at the school before the Civil War. The pieces unveiled in December marked the culmination of years of research into the role slaves had in building and maintaining the university from 1801 to 1865.
One acknowledged the work of slaves whether they were owned by faculty members, the school or private masters who were paid for their slaves’ services. Another plaque near a building that is the last remaining slave house on campus lists the 16 first names only of slaves whose names appear in university records.
“Its buildings and historic wall were substantially constructed by slave labor and built of slave-made brick,” one plaque reads. “The University of South Carolina recognizes the vital contributions made by enslaved people.”
It’s additions like that one, rather than removing the structures themselves, that allow places like the university to preserve history but also put it in context, says John Dozier, an associate provost who is also South Carolina’s chief diversity officer.
“They are part of our past,” Dozier recently told The Associated Press. “By removing them, we remove a memory about that part of our past that may help us to think about what these things meant to us in a moment in time ... and how can we learn from that so that we don’t repeat these things.”
Renewed attention focused last year on the conversation about Confederate and slavery-related monuments, on public property and university campuses, when protests against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee turned violent last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in a woman’s death.
Days later, several statues, including one of Lee, were removed from the Austin campus of the University of Texas, with the school’s president saying such monuments have become “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.” Bronx Community College also removed busts of Lee and Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Some schools have struggled with the reconciliation of history and current sentiment. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, some have called for the removal of a Confederate statue known a “Silent Sam” from its prominent place at North Carolina’s flagship public university, while supporters have called the monument an important memorial.
At the University of South Carolina, some have called for the renaming of a dorm that bears the name of J. Marion Sims, a physician widely considered the “Father of Gynecology” who carried out painful experiments on enslaved women. State law requires two-thirds approval of the Legislature to remove or alter monuments, buildings or roads on public property.
A conversation about what to do with the Mims building is ongoing, Dozier said.
“These are signs of progress, and the university is quite proud of what we’ve been doing,” Dozier said. “But we recognize that these are only steps. To create trust, you have to be honest about your past.”