David Lauderdale

Calling out HBO’s John Oliver: Come see us — and our Lowcountry monuments

Site plan for proposed monument to Harriet Tubman in Beaufort.
Site plan for proposed monument to Harriet Tubman in Beaufort. Submitted

So we’ve been called out by an HBO comedian.

John Oliver had a really good monologue last Sunday.

He peacefully joined the backlash that America is now expressing to the Lost Cause version of history. It seems that all of a sudden people have caught on and are saying they don’t have to take it anymore.

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Oliver made a good point that statues of Confederate heroes don’t really tell the whole truth. He said they could be replaced by heroes in the South’s Lost History to better tell what really happened.

Then he called Beaufort County out.

“How about a giant statue of Robert Smalls,” he said. “He was born into slavery, he stole a Confederate boat and he sailed it to freedom and later served five terms in Congress. This guy is amazing.”

All true.

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Smalls was born in Beaufort and he died in Beaufort. His incredible life is the subject of a number of books, exhibits and video. He is recognized at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. His great-great-grandson, Michael Boulware Moore, is president and CEO of the International African American Museum now taking shape in Charleston.

And, yes, Oliver is right. Beaufort County should do more to tell that he is a native son.

But the comedian should know that one of Beaufort’s precious few pieces of public art is a bust of Robert Smalls near his grave at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Craven Street.

The bust is highly visible from the street, and as the late Hariett Keyserling wrote in recounting how it came to be:

“Beaufort (County) was the first government body in South Carolina to honor a slave, much less a slave who had turned a ship over to the Union navy and joined them in battle.”

Oliver might also want to know that the largest Civil War monument in Beaufort County, to my knowledge, is a 20-foot edifice honoring Union troops.

“Immortality to Hundreds of the Defenders of American Liberty Against the Great Rebellion,” it says.

Gasp.

Look around

The amazing Eliza Potter had the obelisk erected after the war in the then-new Beaufort National Cemetery. This is a lovely place where any interested comedians could also see the large tablet Potter had etched with the names of 167 Union troops who died as Confederate prisoners of war.

Oliver could also see the discreet monument to the African American troops killed with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, whose remains were found near Charleston and reinterred in Beaufort with full military honors on Memorial Day 1989.

He could see the Union Soldiers monument erected in honor of 174 unknown Union dead buried at the cemetery, as well as a memorial in honor of Confederate soldiers interred in a section of the cemetery where citizens peacefully honor them with a ceremony each Confederate Memorial Day.

The fact that Beaufort County was ahead of the current outcry to move beyond the Lost Cause storyline should have been evident when the Reconstruction Era National Monument under the auspices of the National Park Service was created here earlier this year. That achievement was many years in the making.

It was aided to a significant degree by national scholars, our local scholars, and the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

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Personally, my suggestion after the Charlottesville debacle was that we need statues of quiet heroes of our lost history, like the former principal of the then-segregated Robert Smalls High School in Beaufort, Professor W.K. Alston.

But HBO might be more interested in this:

The Tabernacle Baptist Church — where Robert Smalls is buried, and its pastor, the Rev. Kenneth Hodges, led the move to name the new bridge on the Combahee River for Harriet Tubman — is trying to raise money for a big new monument in Beaufort.

It would be a 14-foot bronze and granite memorial to Tubman near the church. Tubman spent time here during the Civil War and participated in a famous Union raid that freed hundreds of slaves up the Combahee River.

It’s another of those stories that has been slow to come to prominence here.

But it’s not cheap. The memorial cost is $500,000. If HBO is interested, I’ll send the address.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

 

June 12, 2015 In Beaufort County after the Civil War, Southern whites felt like a conquered people, reduced to lives of poverty. Many blacks were finally free, with great expectations for a new start as people, not property. A new effort by the National Park Service seeks to tell their seemingly irreconcilable Reconstruction stories. | READ


 

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