Secession Day: 150 years later, still divides

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, marches in front of the Francis Marion Hotel.

As usual, old times here are not forgotten.

On Monday, historians, politicians, re-enactors and curiosity seekers gathered in Charleston to mark the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the United States. It was a day filled with a historical marker dedication, protests and a gala that offered a lesson in what has changed in the past century and a half — and what hasn’t.

The organizers of the South Carolina Secession Gala — the biggest event of the day — said they were merely remembering history, not celebrating the controversial aspects of the Civil War and the role of slavery in the conflict.

Still, about 100 people stood outside the Gaillard Auditorium to protest the event. They said holding a dance to remember secession also honored slavery.

For all the protests, the gala was actually a fairly low-key event. Those who arrived early got a close look at the actual Ordinance of Secession, and then nearly all of the 400 attendees settled in to watch a 90-minute play about the state’s secession convention.

Many of the performers were politicians — Sen. Glenn McConnell, state Rep. Chip Limehouse and Charleston City Councilman Tim Mallard among them. The dialogue was taken from records of the event, which meant that it closely resembled a legislative session, complete with parliamentary procedure.

Despite a short version of ‘Dixie Land’ sung at the end of the play, this was not an ode to moonlight and magnolias. The play’s narrator, and the speeches delivered by the delegates, minced no words about reasons for the secession, from high tariffs to slavery.

‘It is meant to be educational and entertaining,’ said Jeff Antley, event chairman for the gala.

Limehouse said the performance was truthful and tasteful and that South Carolina schoolchildren should have seen it.

‘This is history,’ he said. ‘This happened here in Charleston. We remember our history and hope the rest of the country likes it. If not, we’re going to do it anyway.’

If not for the band and a few others in period costume, it would have been difficult to distinguish the gala from any other formal event.

‘We aren’t celebrating slavery, or war or the deaths of 620,000 people — we’re not insane,’ said Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and one of the event’s sponsors. ‘Those are tragic, solemn events. We celebrate life and we are glad that slavery came to an end in 1865. Our mission is simply to tell the story.’

By the evening’s end, some of the guests — a few in period costume, but most in formal wear — danced the Virginia reel, a popular folk dance in the mid-19th century, and one depicted in a certain film about the Civil War. Some joked in agreement that it was the evening’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ re-enactment.

The day started an hour before noon when about 100 people, just a few in period dress, crowded along a Meeting Street sidewalk to witness the unveiling of a new historical marker at the former Institute Hall — where South Carolinians signed the Ordinance of Secession exactly 150 years before.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was interrupted once by an audience member who yelled out, ‘You’re a liar!’ as Riley talked about the direct relationship between slavery and secession.

‘That the cause of this disastrous secession was an expressed need to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery is undeniable,’ Riley said, prompting the outburst.

Other speakers weren’t interrupted. Jannie Harriot, vice chair of the S.C. African American Heritage Commission, said she hoped everyone would learn lessons from secession and the Civil War so the state will have a brighter future. ‘We don’t want to repeat this tragic time in our history,’ she said.

The Fort Sumter-Fort Moultrie Historical Trust erected the new South Carolina historical marker, which says that Institute Hall was the site of the 1860 Democratic convention that broke apart over slavery — as well as the site where the Ordinance of Secession was signed after Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election several months later.

S.C. Archives and History Director Eric Emerson called the new plaque ‘by far the most important historical marker’ in the state.

Randy Burbage of the Confederate Heritage Trust said it’s appropriate to mark the spot where the ordinance signers did what they thought was right for the state. ‘They’re our people,’ he said, ‘and it’s wrong for us to judge them by today’s standards and civilization because we don’t know what they were feeling and thinking back then.’

Monday afternoon, the NAACP’s protest began outside the Francis Marion and Embassy Suites hotels.

Dot Scott of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, carried a sign reading ‘Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.’

‘They have a right to have their celebration,’ Scott said. ‘We have a right to speak out against it.’

Michael Givens of Beaufort, commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the Secession Gala was about celebrating the bravery and tenacity of those willing to go out and defend their homes from an invasion.

‘These people are to be honored, whether you agree with their politics or not,’ he said. ‘We’re very happy that there’s no slavery today. If there’s one thing we can celebrate, we can celebrate the demise of that dark part of our history — that there is no slavery in America.’

More than 100 gathered outside the Gaillard, as the NAACP’s protest march began there and ended one mile later at Morris Brown AME Church. There, the protesters saw excerpts from the 1915 silent film ‘Birth of a Nation,’ which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light. They then held a panel discussion.

Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the S.C. Christian Action Council, said, ‘We march because for truth to die, people who know the truth just need to sit by and wait.’

Donald West, an instructor-coordinator at Trident Technical College, told the NAACP gathering inside Morris Brown that they need to be prepared for this historical debate to linger on as the sesquicentennial events continue through 2015.

‘This is going to go on for another five years, and then we’ll start talking about Reconstruction, which isn’t a pretty story either,’ he said.

Throughout the day, the protesters acknowledged the right of others to hold a ball, and at the ball some of the event’s sponsors said they recognized — and supported — the rights of their protesters.

Despite all of the conflict Monday, some things really have changed in the past 150 years.