COLUMBIA — The state Capitol building here symbolizes the contradictions that define South Carolina.
Even more prominent are the anchors to the grounds. The Confederate flag — which flew atop the Capitol and was moved in 2000 due to pressure — and a statue of Strom Thurmond, U.S. Senator for 47 years and longtime proponent of segregation, welcome people to the North and South entrances of the Capitol, while an African American History Monument lies on the East side of the grounds. This latter monument is the first of its kind on state capitol grounds anywhere in the United States.
Further complicating the Capitol story is the recently added name “Essie Mae” to a list of Thurmond’s children, a daughter he fathered with his family’s African American maid. For this addition, the number of children chiseled in stone on the monument had to be changed from four to five.
Inside the Capitol I spoke with former American History high school teacher of 27 years and 10-year Tour Coordinator for the Capitol, Heyward Stuckey. (He was prompt and proud to point out that his first name is shared with a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Heyward Jr.)
When asked about the flag controversy, Stuckey noted that the Confederate flag that flew on the Capitol dome 1962 to 2000 was the Confederate Navy Flag — the version often connected to neo-Nazi groups. In 2000 the flag was removed from the dome, and a different version of the flag, the Confederate Battle Flag, was positioned about 50 yards from the front steps of the Capitol.
Stuckey said the flag was a “hateful symbol to many,” but he quickly moved to another angle on the flag. He said, “You can’t pick the war you want to be in…[the flag represents] the courage and fortitude of soldiers.” He added that South Carolina lost the highest percentage of men in the Civil War, roughly a third of the draftable population, age 20 to 55. “It wiped out a whole generation,” he said.
His words hung out there, floating down the front steps to a George Washington statue honoring an American Founding Father and over to the Declaration of Secession that began the Civil War. Both too are chiseled in stone.