COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina mayor knows that state law won't allow him to take down a monument to a white supremacist killed during a Reconstructionist era riot. Instead, Mayor Bob Pettit is fighting to put up memorials for the eight black men who were also killed.
Mayor Bob Pettit of North Augusta has lived in the city since 1991. But he never paid much attention to the obelisk of Thomas Meriwether or the history behind it. Meriwether was killed during the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, which was launched by white supremacists seeking to seize local political control from blacks and carpetbaggers.
Meriwether was hailed at the time as a hero of white independence, and his death prompted South Carolina lawmakers to dedicate a monument to him in 1914. It holds the following inscription: "In life he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal."
There was no mention of the eight black men who were killed, and the incident lay dormant until a constituent came to a city council meeting in the wake of white supremacist violence that led to the death of a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia in September 2017.
"I challenged them," community activist Ken Makin said. "I said, 'You can denounce racist violence and remove that statue.' "
Pettit took up the challenge. He established a committee that met for more than a year to research and study the area's history. The result was a 352-page report that leaves no doubt about the racist motives behind the memorial.
"Certainly it (the memorial to Meriwether) is not appropriate in today's North Augusta," Pettit said. "Doing nothing is totally unacceptable."
Removing the statue would probably need an unlikely two-thirds vote from South Carolina's conservative, Republican-dominated General Assembly under a state law called the Heritage Act, passed in 2000 when the Confederate flag was removed off the capitol dome. The law bans removing historical monuments.
So Pettit thinks he has a workaround. He wants North Augusta to partner with private groups and put up some kind of memorial to the eight black men killed on the same site - in a park along one of the city's busiest streets.
The mayor said the new memorial must be comparable to the existing one and complete the story of how Red Shirts like the ones involved in the Hamburg Massacre went around South Carolina in 1876 intimidating voters to try to boot blacks from power. They won in an election so close that for months, the state had dueling governors and House Speakers until Wade Hampton and the white supremacists muscled others out of the government.
The attack also made a hero of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, who led the white mob. Tillman would ride the notoriety from driving blacks out of power to the South Carolina governor's office and later the U.S. Senate.
Most of the black men killed in the Hamburg Massacre were executed after the riot was over. Tillman left little doubt the goal was to terrorize African-Americans, saying at a reunion of his Red Shirts in 1909 that "bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro and carpetbag rule."
Pettit said the first step to adding to the Meriwether Monument is getting North Augusta City Council to pass a resolution agreeing to study the issue. The mayor also hopes the Attorney General's Office will eventually weigh in on whether adding to a monument violates the Heritage Act. The law only says memorials cannot be "relocated, removed, disturbed, or altered."
Makin appreciated the mayor's work, even if he thinks anything short of removal is a nod at South Carolina's long, violent racist past.
"I understand the city is looking for unity, but to me, with a new monument, you equate two dueling ideals that shouldn't be equal," Makin said.