Calhoun Statue Overlooking Charleston Takes Time to Come Down

Jun 25, 2020

It’s been nearly impossible to see the face of John C. Calhoun perched atop a more than 100- foot pedestal over the Charleston city skyline for 124 years, but now the likeness of the South Carolina statesman is gone.

It took time to take down.

Calhoun was a former State Senator and Vice President of the United States. But he was also a well-known advocate of racist policies, especially slavery.

The Debate

His stature in one of the city’s most prominent parks, Marion Square, has been debated for years.

Many thought the figure should come down in 2015 following the murders on nine Black parishioners at the hands of a racist gunman at Mother Emanuel AME Church just down the street. It did not.  But the confederate flag flying at the state capitol did.

The John c. Calhoun statue as it stood above the city for 124 years
Credit Victoria Hansen

The videotaped death of a Black Minneapolis man pinned to the ground and gasping from breath beneath the knee of a white police officer prompted a wave of protests across the nation in May. 

People in Charleston took part and the demonstrations remained mostly peaceful. But the protests turned violent one Saturday night as rioters damaged and looted already pandemic ravaged businesses and clashed with heavily armed police. 

This was not the image Charleston portrayed five years ago as the city and the nation mourned the victims of the church massacre.

But once again, the Calhoun statue was repeatedly defaced.

The Decisive Moment

Last week, on the five-year anniversary of the Mother Emanuel shootings, Charleston’s mayor announced the city council would consider a resolution for the statue’s removal.  It passed unanimously Tuesday night and within hours work was underway, but not before a thunderstorm crashed across the city and lightening illuminated the divisive effigy.

Crews work for more than 17 hours to remove the statue of John C. Calhoun from its towering base
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

“It’s been a long time coming,” said council member William Dudley Gregorie. 

Gregorie joined a growing crowd of hundreds at Marion square gathered outside a newly erected fence protecting the monument from people. The Black, Charleston native wrapped his fingers through the chain links and leaned against the fence.

He quietly watched as crews took to cranes and lit up the towering statue from its base.  At times, his face lit up too.

“I just can’t miss what I consider a symbol of hate taken down that has just been towering over our city all my life,” said Gregorie.

Gregorie grew up as a member of Mother Emanuel and vividly remembers walking past the looming likeness with his mother as a boy on the way to church.  She’s now 99 years-old and he can’t wait to tell her the statue of John C. Calhoun has been taken down.

But he says, there’s still much work to be done.

“We have to make sure that we’re not just taking down symbols of hate, but we’re also tearing down systems of hate,” Gregorie said.

He hopes the city will tackle racial disparities in education, housing and banking.

The Work and Wait

As the night wore on, the crowd of people chanting “take it down” began to disperse and the work above appeared increasingly intense.  

Crowd gathers at Marion square to watch as the Calhoun statue is prepared to be taken down
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

The crews in cranes attached a giant harness across Calhoun’s chest.  But they seemed to struggle to separate the statue from its base.  Water dripped down the tall, stone tower as sparks and smoke spewed against the dark sky.

The statue of Calhoun it seemed was not coming down easily.

“Some of the young people are not like we are,” said council member and Mayor Pro Temp Robert Mitchell.  “They want it to happen today.  They don’t want to wait until tomorrow.”

Mitchell has had to wait. He too is a Black man raised in Charleston.

“I was passing this statue when I was 14 years-old and I was demonstrating during the civil rights movement,” he said.

“I got locked up more than 25 times right here in this area where the statue is located.”

Mitchell remembers the grown-ups talking about the Calhoun statue as they walked to Mother Emanuel’s daughter church, Mount Zion AME.  They spoke of a racist man revered in their city; a city where nearly half of all enslaved Africans were brought to this nation.

It was their city too.  But the monument didn’t make African Americans feel that way.

“He has his back turned to the North where most of the African Americans were living,” said Mitchell.  “That was telling you right then you are so far as I’m concerned not even part of society.”

Mitchell says the city council has wanted to take the Calhoun replica down for some time but thought their hands were tied by the state’s Heritage Act.  It does give South Carolina some control over such statues. 

Man watches and waits as John C. Calhoun statue is removed from Marion Square in Charleston
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

But Mayor John Tecklenburg and council members think they’ve found a loophole.  They point to paperwork showing the monument was given to the city council not long after it went up.  They will decide where the statue will be kept and preserved at a later date.

As the sun rose in Marion Square, a new crowd emerged.  Rain soaked signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Love Not Hate” slowly slipped to the ground.  People spread them out to dry.  New signs quickly appeared.

Above, the same battle ensued as crews wrestled with the statue of Calhoun.  City officials said workers had discovered the figure was fixed with a bronze mounting bracket, filled with an epoxy and concrete mix.  A metal lightening rod ran the length of the column, beginning at the bottom of the statesman’s shoes.  The dangling crews needed a diamond tip blade to cut Calhoun loose.

People in support of the statues removal share signs of love.
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

The Face

The hours ticked by.  People  came and went.  Then just after 2 p.m. Wednesday, police asked the crowd to step back.  Many looked up and held their breath.  Still nothing happened.

The beeping sound of those ascending cranes once again filled the park.  People scattered for cover, sharing what little shade could be found in the blistering sun. The crews were back beside Calhoun, like they were tying his shoes or having a long talk.  But they were not.

Just after 5 p.m., more than 17 hours after the work began and nearly a full day since the city council vote, police and workers cleared out from beneath the base of the giant monument.

Bells from a nearby church played “Amazing Grace” and the statue was slowly lifted from its long-time pedestal.

People rush to see the face of John C. Calhoun as the statue is taken down after more than 124 years. June 24, 2020
Credit Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio

People cheered and sang and took pictures.  They rushed to the fence where the figure of Calhoun with one hand on his hip was gently set on the ground. 

For the first time, they could see the face that peered down for so long.