Several hundred people gathered in Marion Square in the historic South Carolina city of Charleston early Wednesday to watch the removal of a statue of former vice president and strong slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. Charleston officials voted unanimously Tuesday to remove the statue from the downtown square, the latest in a wave of actions arising from protests against racism and police brutality against African Americans.
Some onlookers grew restless just after 1 a.m. and began to leave just before crews used bucket trucks to soar more than 100 feet in the air to the top of the statue to make preparations for its removal. Another piece of equipment that appeared to have pulleys attached was being raised to the height of the statue from Calhoun Street, the roadway that marks the southern border of the square where the statue sits and also bears his name. Crews also appeared to be removing the plaques that adorn the four sides of the pedestal on which the monument and statue sit.
City Council members approved the measure 13-0 at a late-day meeting. The resolution authorized the removal of the statue of the former U.S. vice president and senator from South Carolina.
City officials said the Calhoun statue would eventually be placed permanently at “an appropriate site where it will be protected and preserved.”
Just before midnight on Tuesday, the Charleston Police Department tweeted that, “Calhoun Street between Meeting Street and King Street is closed for the removal of the John C. Calhoun statue,” adding that the street would be closed for several hours.
At about 1 a.m. Wednesday, workers using massive cranes began to bring the statue down. A few hundred people gathered at the scene, most of them favoring of removal.
The vote came a week after Mayor John Tecklenburg announced he would send the resolution to the council. He also took part in the vote.
“I believe that we are setting a new chapter, a more equitable chapter, in our city’s history,” Tecklenburg said, just before the vote. “We are making the right step. It’s just simply the right thing for us to do.”
After the vote, he remarked that, “We have a sense of unity moving forward for racial conciliation and for unity in this city. God bless you all.”
Council members heard from dozens of residents for and against the statue’s removal.
Councilman Karl L. Brady Jr. said he knew his support may cost him votes but that he was voting his conscience in a move he said shows that, in Charleston, “We place white supremacy and white supremacist thought back where it belongs – on the ash heap of history.”
Some people said the statue is a part of history and should remain up.
The move comes days after the fifth anniversary of the slaying of nine black parishioners in a racist attack at a downtown Charleston church. It also comes as cities around the U.S. debate the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders and others after the policy custody death of a black man, George Floyd, in Minnesota.
The ultimate resting place of the statue is being left up to a special panel. The mayor has anticipated it would go to a local museum or educational institution.
Last Wednesday, when Tecklenburg announced his plans to remove the statue, dozens of protesters linked arms around the monument, shouting, “Take it down!” Video posted on Twitter also showed signs and spray-painting on the monument. Police said they made several arrests for vandalism and ultimately closed off the area overnight.
In the heart of downtown Charleston, Calhoun towers over the sprawling square frequented by locals and tourists alike that’s a frequent venue for festivals and large public events. Several organizers have said recently that they would no longer use the space while the statue remained.
About 40% of enslaved Africans brought to North America came through the port city of Charleston, which formally apologized in 2018 for its role in the slave trade.
In its resolution, the city says the statue, in place since 1898, “is seen by many people as something other than a memorial to the accomplishments of a South Carolina native, but rather a symbol glorifying slavery and as such, a painful reminder of the history of slavery in Charleston.”
Calhoun’s support of slavery never wavered. He said in several speeches on the U.S. Senate floor in the 1830s that slaves in the South were better off than free Blacks in the North while calling slavery a “positive good.”
His backing of slavery has prompted calls for the statue’s removal from Marion Square for years.