For most of the history of the United States, the story of “history” has been written about and told through the prism of white people … white people who controlled power and wealth. That’s much of what we baby boomers were taught in schools. Things have dramatically changed. America is quickly changing. And, nowhere are changes more apparent than in South Carolina. Our friend and baby boomer Mencer Donahue “Don” Edwards grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and says “good riddance” to the past.
The Confederate battle flag no longer flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. But I’m not done.
I’m gonna tell a piece of MY southern heritage story. Because it also matters. And it is why the flag had to come down.
This is the family lore.
My Great Grand Father, Charlie Bulter, was the property of the Butler family. Confederate General Matthew C. Butler was a scion of his family, one of South Carolina’s founding families going back to when South Carolina was still a colony. He and his friend, General Johnson C. Hagood, served under General Wade Hampton in his calvary. After Lee”s surrender. they came home to their plantations and their former negro property.
Little had changed. Most of the now free men and women were still on General Butler’s land. However, after Emancipation, Charlie Butler, his second wife, (‘the first’ ) Cornelia, his brother George and sister Suzannah were able to earn wages because they were skilled. Charlie was a butler, Suzannah, a seamstress, and George, a smithy.
This is how they were able to purchase the land that remains in my family to this day.
Fast forward to Reconstruction and after its overturning, “Redemption” or what history calls “Jim Crow.” General Wade Hampton became South Carolina’s Governor. He was now a “Bourbon Democrat” and leader of the terror unleashed on black people, who having been abandoned by the US Army, fought pitched battles on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol grounds via their own black militias.
Charlie Butler’s best friend is a black Reconstruction-era legislator from Charleston named Edward Mencer Sumpter. So Charlie names his youngest son Edward Mencer Sumpter Butler in his honor. This is my Grand Uncle Menk and one of my namesakes.
In my early 30s, I made a tape of Uncle Menk describing the funeral procession of the ‘Old Massa,’ General Johnson C. Hagood, who had taken over the former Butler lands and negroes.
Uncle Menk, who was in his 80s then, was very precise in his description of how as a boy not 10 years old, he remembers the soldiers in their uniforms, the battle flags, the guns firing a salute, etc. He remembers that all the blacks bowed their heads in honor.
For 150 years after their surrender at Appomattox, former Confederates donned white robes in South Carolina as members of the Order of the White Camelias. They fought with black militias, massacred black people across South Carolina, including in Barnwell and Charleston, imposed Jim Crow and re-established the rule of the Democratic Party as the party of “The Redeemers.”
So for the past 150 years, that flag has represented threat, fear, hatred and death at a personal level in my family and in the families of millions of other black Carolinians.
And my family’s narrative is just one reason why the flag did not deserve to be on the grounds of the People’s House of South Carolina.
Good riddance. No turning back.
Nine martyrs were the game changers. But they stood for 15 decades and millions of lives who paid before they did.
So if you want to talk about the battle flag as a symbol of southern heritage, tell all of the story.
When First Lady Obama stated that she could be proud of being an American for the first time after her husband was elected, she took a lot of heat. But millions of blacks and other people got it.
Today is the first time in my life that I can say I’m proud to be from Charleston, South Carolina.
Mencer Donahue “Don” Edwards is the founder, CEO and principal of Justice and Sustainability Associates in Washington, D.C. He is considered one of the most deft facilitator-mediators and civic engagement designers working today in the field of land use and development by international, federal, regional, state and local planning, transportation, parks and economic development agencies, corporations, universities, foundations and community-based organizations.