Across South Carolina and the South, Confederate monuments are ubiquitous. In Rock Hill, York, Chester, Lancaster, the monuments are in front of county courthouses and in cemeteries, and tout a cause historians say clearly was born out of secession to keep slavery.
Fort Mill is different.
Fort Mill has a monument in its Confederate Park dedicated to slaves. “Faithful slaves” to the Confederacy, the monument states, memorialized by the Samuel White family of Fort Mill.
The debate rages around the country after last month’s violence in Charlottesville, Va., about whether monuments to the Confederacy have a place in modern America.
Descendants of slaves in the Fort Mill area say that monument should stay right where it is.
“That time in history happened. We can’t go back and change that,” said Fort Mill native Weldon Harris.” “My read on that monument is that it was done for atonement.”
As the descendants of the family planned a reunion last year, research found Harris’ great-grandfather, Handy White, was born a slave around 1832 and is one of the “faithful slaves” honored on the white stone.
Harris said he sees the monument as unique to blacks who were slaves and survived enslavement. That doesn’t make the Confederate cause of trying to keep slavery is any more tolerable, Harris said. He said black people who were part of the Confederate service – as cooks, servants and soldiers – did so out of fear of retaliation or retribution from their masters, and were ordered to do so because they were not free.
“I am proud that my great-grandfather survived it,” said Harris, 53, who now lives in northern Virginia not far from Charlottesville. “I am not embarrassed.”
The Fort Mill monument went up in 1895 and states “1860 Dedicated to the faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the Army. With matchless devotion and with sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children during the struggle for principles of our Confederate States of America. 1865.”
It is one of only three monuments across America honoring slaves – another is in West Virginia, the other in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Daniel Watts, 80, also is a great-grandson of White. Daniel is the first African-American to serve on the Fort Mill Town Council and Fort Mill school board. Until recently, Watts said, like others, he overlooked the monument. The subject never came up during his time on council, he said.
“I agree it should stay up and be there for people to see and understand that is where we came from,” Watts said. “This is my great-grandfather Handy White on here. This is where I came from. This is me.”
Watts and Harris say the monument should stay up not just because it is their family, but because it is unique in that it memorializes black history and those black people who helped forge Fort Mill. Harris and Watts say as older men, they can more easily see the historic importance of the monument than younger people who see it as an affront to their race and heritage.
“I don’t think the solution is to go after it with sledgehammers,” Harris said.
The Rev. Charles White-Kiser, another family member and pastor of a church in Rock Hill, said slavery was an abomination. But the monument shows the strength of a people subjugated could not be denied, and was not stamped out, and remains in him and others.
“It represents parts of the White family,” White-Kiser said. “My great-grandfather helped establish this community, especially Paradise – the neighborhood where black people lived and many still do.”
The family has soldiers, law enforcement officers, preachers, and those breaking racial barriers. They say no monument can rid America of racism.
“If you don’t change what’s in a man’s heart, tearing down all the monuments in the world won’t make a difference,” White-Kiser said.
Confederate Park in Fort Mill has three other monuments – one for Confederate soldiers, one for Confederate women and one for Catawba Indians said to be loyal to the Confederacy. The park and monuments were deeded to the town by Samuel White’s family, town officials said.
The S.C. Heritage Act of 2000, which gives sole authority to change Confederate monuments to the Legislature, means the town residents and its leaders have no say in whether the monuments stay or go, officials say.
But the Heritage Act is under legal scrutiny. A pending lawsuit in Greenwood over a monument to “colored” soldiers claims the Heritage Act is unconstitutional.
The Fort Mill monument illustrates a core issue for African-Americans descended from slaves, who have almost no history or heritage that is part of the larger Southern history talked about in America or displayed on monuments, said Adolphus Belk, political science professor at Winthrop University and a national expert on race, public policy and and ethnic politics.
“There are no monuments to these people who are descended from slaves, no monuments to the liberation of a people, but there are monuments to their tormentors and those who fought to keep them enslaved,” Belk said. “Blacks were denied their personhood and ability to decide for themselves as a free people.”
Harris said family research shows Handy White received a Confederate war pension of $25 a year the rest of his life.
“Nobody can tell me anyone fought to be a slave, to remain a slave, for people who wanted to keep slavery,” Harris said.
Belk said he understands why the descendants of Handy White and the other slaves on the monument in Fort Mill would want that monument saved. The families of the people on that monument have a tangible thing – a monument – that says where they came from, Belk said. That is vital and important, Belk said.
“Why is this all they have to hold on to?” Belk said that should be asked of political and community leaders who espouse keeping Confederate history alive. “Where is the real story of what those people had to endure, the circumstances of their lives?”
A debate only about the Confederacy and its monuments to white generals and others who espoused racial superiority and slavery dismisses the history and millions of blacks who were enslaved and for generations have been and remain southerners, Belk said.
Harris, a retired Army soldier wore just one flag – the U.S. flag – on his uniform for decades.
He says waving or honoring the Confederate flag is wrong.
“That flag has become the battle cry for egregious terrorist organizations such as the KKK, the Nazis, the white supremacists,” Harris said.
The monument in Fort Mill honors something different.
In 2018, the family descended from Handy White again will gather in Fort Mill and walk down to the monument and take pictures as a group in front of the monument dedicated to the slaves.
“That monument is a part of who I am, who we all are,” White-Kiser said. “We are grateful for the recognition for our family and the families of all the black people on this monument. We don’t want this statue going anywhere.”