By: Robert Scott
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
Readers of this column may remember OpEds from around two years ago regarding the vanished town of Hamburg, S.C., its history during the Reconstruction era, and its ties to Edgefield. What was once Hamburg is now within the city limits of North Augusta, adjacent to the old Fifth Street bridge; it was part of Edgefield County until Aiken County was established in March, 1871. To review, the Reconstruction black Hamburg militia held a parade in their Union soldier uniforms complete with Civil War era rifles, marking the nation’s centennial on July 4th, 1876. The parade blocked a public road, much to the consternation of two white planters from Edgefield County. Four days later, about 20 members of the militia were besieged by a crowd of over 100 white citizens bent on disarming them, including those planters’ friends and neighbors. In the resulting shoot-out, one white man was killed along with three black men. The remaining militia members surrendered and gave up their arms, following which four of them were singled out and shot. Several of the white participants were soon indicted for murder, but with the end of the Reconstruction government in that November’s election, none were ever tried. And 40 years later in 1916, the all-white South Carolina legislature helped to fund a memorial to the one white fatality, Thomas McKie Meriwether. The memorial, an obelisk about 12 feet tall that still stands in North Augusta at the intersection of Georgia and Carolina Avenues, lauds Mr. Meriwether as one who “exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization” and states that he died to assure “the supremacy of that ideal.”
An effort to change the message represented by that monument is finally underway, with the North Augusta City Council recognizing two years ago that this monument is not who we are now, in the Twenty-First Century; and that our public persona in Aiken and in Edgefield Counties (North Augusta straddles both) is not what it was in 1916 when the monument was constructed, much less what it was in July, 1876. There is now a “Calhoun Park committee” working with the North Augusta city council, Calhoun Park being the location of the McKie Meriwether monument – somewhat ironically, considering the history of John C. Calhoun. The city council has officially resolved that the monument is, according to the Aiken newspaper, “offensive and inconsistent with today’s beliefs, and that an education display and structure recognizing the seven black men who died during the Hamburg Massacre should be installed” adjacent to it. The committee is drawing up a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit professional designs for such a structure and is developing a budget for it.
One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr., quotes is “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Change eventually comes to those who call ourselves South Carolinians and generally for the better – fitfully on occasion, but nobly at times (we all remember the final lowering of the Confederate Flag from our Statehouse). Next door in Aiken County, the arc of the moral universe is bending slowly and quietly, visible to us all.