As Confederate debate mounts, new monument honoring SC’s secession comes to Abbeville
By Joseph Cranney
September 9, 2018
ABBEVILLE — Robert Hayes, work shirt covered in dirt on a sweltering August midday, takes a break from mowing the lawn.
He sits and looks across his two acres of land on a shady Abbeville hill that some consider South Carolina’s cradle of the Confederacy.
“It’s sacred,” he said about the hill where thousands gathered on November 22, 1860 for a first-of-its kind series of speeches from local leaders arguing for secession.
“It’s where a group of South Carolinians stood firm for freedom.”
And he wants to make sure people remember that.
Hayes is a leading Abbeville keeper of Confederate history and former state director of the League of the South, an organization considered by some to be a hate group.
He, along with the S.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, will erect an 11-and-a-half foot monument on Secession Hill dedicated to the 170 signers of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, ratified in Charleston a month after the Abbeville speeches.
To unveil the monument on Nov. 10, the town of Abbeville, which has its first African-American mayor, is hosting a parade.
In the wake of the 2015 racially charged massacre at a Charleston church, erecting Confederate monuments across the country has become increasingly rare. Pressure is mounting instead to remove what may consider to be painful reminders of slavery and institutional racism.
Protesters last month tore down a Confederate soldier statue at the University of North Carolina, and nearly 50 monuments have come down during the past three years, the Southern Poverty Law Center found.
None were in South Carolina, where removing monuments and other historical symbols in public spaces requires a two-thirds votes of the General Assembly.
Lawmakers did vote to end flying the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds soon after the Charleston church shooting, but legislative leaders announced they would not consider removing another Confederate markers anytime soon.
South Carolina’s nearly 60 Confederate monuments on public property ranks sixth most in the country. Georgia has the most with 115.
But the Abbeville display, and a granite memorial dedicated to Confederate soldiers that went up in Aiken last year, are two recent examples of another way Confederate monuments are erected. They rest on private land, where public officials have little control over what can be displayed.
The Abbeville monument, weighing about 20 tons with a full inscription of the state’s secession ordinance, is planned for Secessionist Hill fronting a well-traveled corridor on Secession Avenue.
That the Abbeville monument has mostly flown under the radar signals how these once-prideful displays, many erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s, are now likely to be planned more quietly.
“All they (critics) want to do is play up the deal of the flag and the animosity between blacks and the whites,” said Albert Jackson, vice chairman of the monument committee for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It’s not true. It’s a total lie.”
In Charleston, Emanuel AME’s pastor, The Rev. Eric Manning, said erecting new monuments honoring the Confederacy or secession only further highlights the country’s divisions. He called the Abbeville monument “disappointing.”
“This doesn’t do anything to bring us together as a community or as a state,” Manning said.
For its secession monument, the Sons of Confederate Veterans picked Hayes’ property in Abbeville only after it was rebuffed twice in its attempts to place it on public land near Charleston, where the secession ordinance was signed and the Civil War started.
The group first eyed a location near Charleston Harbor in 2010 but the Patriots Point Development Authority rejected the offer in a split vote.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey then offered a spot in Riverfront Park but withdrew after he said “some who stand on both sides of this issue have attempted to divide our council and our city along racial lines.” North Charleston’s population is evenly split among whites and blacks.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans’ secession monument, paid with private donations, landed on Hayes’ property because it’s privately owned and historical, Jackson said.
Hayes, 78, is also a well known backer of Confederate causes.
A retired teacher, Hayes travels as a Confederate President Jefferson Davis impersonator.
In the town about an hour south of Greenville, Hayes has been president of the Abbeville District History Club and for years sold Confederate memorabilia at Abbeville’s popular Southern Patriot Shop. Before it closed recently, the shop featured Confederate flags and bumper stickers that read, “If at first you don’t secede, try again.”
After purchasing the land at Secession Hill more than a decade ago, Hayes had an historic marker added there in 2010.
Abbeville already has two public Confederate monuments — the First Secession Meeting columns on Secession Avenue and a pillar outside the courthouse that includes an inscription reading, “The world shall yet decide, in truth’s clear, far-off light, that the soldiers who wore the gray, and died with Lee were in the right!”
Hayes was South Carolina director for the League of the South for several years. The league is a Southern nationalist group based in Alabama that marched during last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Virginia. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the league as a hate group.
Hayes’ involvement with the Abbeville monument has caused some concern among Sons of Confederate Veterans members, said Mike Skinner, a member of the organization’s executive committee.
“They’re resigned to the fact that we take what we can get, anyway we can get it, regardless of who we lay in bed with,” Skinner said. “That’s a shame.”
Secession and slavery
Hayes does not understand how anyone can equate what happened with the Charleston mass shooting or the legacy of slavery with his secessionist monument.
Church shooter Dylann Roof might have posted photos of himself with the Confederate flag but, to Hayes’ knowledge, he did not have any connection with any Southern heritage organization.
“Why is anybody even associating the two?” Hayes asked.
South Carolina seceded because of “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery,” according to the state’s own supporting documents to its secession ordinance.
The Abbeville monument only intends to honor the men who signed the secession ordinance, Jackson said. The signers include William Curtis, a founder of Limestone College, and Benjamin Faneuil Dunkin, one of the state’s earliest Supreme Court justices.
“Those are the kind of stories that are missing altogether,” Jackson said.
But there’s another story beginning to get told.
Outside the Abbeville Opera House in the middle of the town’s brick-laid public square, civil rights activists in 2016 unveiled a plaque on the 100-year anniversary of Abbeville’s lynching of Anthony Crawford.
Crawford was a wealthy black businessman who had been accused of arguing with a white man over the price of cotton. A mob of roughly 300 dragged Crawford through town behind a buggy then stabbed him, hanged him and riddled his body with more than 200 bullets.
Crawford’s plaque was dedicated by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative. The group recently opened a National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., part of its effort to expand the country’s understanding of its racially-violent history.
Abbeville’s ceremony for Crawford came without protests, Mayor Santana Delano Freeman said.
Freeman, 45, was elected as Abbeville’s first African-American mayor in 2016. He joined the majority of the Town Council in voting to approve the November parade for Abbeville’s secession monument. The approval came because Hayes properly followed the city’s rules to get a permit, Freeman said.
Freeman, who is also a member of a local AME congregation, said he expects the November gathering to be peaceful.
“I just hope we have the same resolve here as the people in Charleston had,” he said.
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