A handful of markers, memorials, monuments and more glorifying or commemorating the Confederacy, its icons, some of its Civil War triumphs and an atrocity committed during the tempestuous Reconstruction era exists in Aiken County.
They occupy space in busy downtown Aiken and North Augusta and between the two cities, among other locales. Some are more off the beaten path than others; one is quite literally the beaten path.
Their very existence is coming under increased scrutiny as similar shrines, statues and symbols nationwide are being toppled, removed, defaced and otherwise assailed amid once-again surging demands for social reform and racial equity.
What and where
Mere blocks from each other in Aiken, deemed an All-America City, are the Aiken County Confederate Monument, a 1900s obelisk that now rises from a landscaped traffic circle in front of the Park Avenue courthouse, and a headstone-like vestige, adorned with a carving of the Confederate flag, marking and celebrating the Battle of Aiken and the repelling of troops so many years ago.
"Near this site on February 11, 1865 was fought one of the final Confederate victories of the war between the states," reads in part the marker, shaded by trees near St. John's United Methodist Church. "Successful defense of Aiken by the Confederates prevented the possible destruction of the cities of Aiken, Augusta and the Graniteville Mill."
A massive, days-long reenactment of the Battle of Aiken is held every year near Interstate 20. Featuring cannon, cavalry, Confederates and candle making, among other attractions, the booming recreation is a major tourism and history-buff draw. A $5,000, 7-foot-tall memorial to Confederate soldiers was erected on the private grounds there. Proceeds from Battle of Aiken reenactment were used to fund it.
At USC Aiken, the Pickens-Salley House, a restored plantation-style building dating to 1829, is used as an office building.
It derives its name from the Pickens family – Gov. Francis Pickens supported South Carolina during secession, and Lucy Holcombe Pickens was an "ardent Confederate and novelist," according to state records – as well as Eulalie Chafee Salley, a suffragist who later helped resurrect the house.
The Pickens-Salley House, also referred to as the Alumni House as of last summer, was moved to its prominent campus perch years ago. The university is working to better and more accurately contextualize and explain the home's provenance and pedigree, information and messages reviewed by the Aiken Standard show.
Connecting Aiken and North Augusta is Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. (Davis was eventually charged with treason.) The well-traveled highway – also referred to as U.S. 1 and Aiken-Augusta Highway – slices through The Valley and serves as a main artery to Augusta, across the Savannah River.
A small marker for Davis and the highway exists in Clearwater, near Lakeside Baptist Church. Records from Google Maps show several Confederate flags flying above it. Those flags, featuring the stars and bars, are no longer displayed as of Friday.
And in North Augusta stands the Meriwether Monument. With a racially divisive inscription, the obelisk honors the sole white man, Thomas McKie Meriwether, to die in the race-related Hamburg Massacre, which erupted some four decades before the monument went up.
Seven Black men were killed in the massacre: Allen Attaway, Jim Cook, Albert Myniart, Nelder Parker, Moses Parks, David Phillips and Hampton Stephens. The Meriwether Monument names not one of them.
Instead, it hails Meriwether as a "young hero" who "found forever the greatful (sic) remembrance of all who know high and generous service in the maintaining of those civic and social institutions which the men and women of his race had struggled through the centuries to establish in South Carolina." A nearby historical marker explains, "87 whites were charged in the massacre but were never tried for it."
Compounding the Meriwether Monument's already divisive nature is the fact that it exists in Calhoun Park, a manicured triangle of grass and paths and shrubs and trees that overlooks the city's downtown drag. The sprawl is often referred to as John C. Calhoun Park, though the precise name and its origins are unclear. The city of North Augusta's own website refers to the park using the name of the zealous defender of slavery and ardent arguer of racial inequality.
The greater context
The Southern Poverty Law Center – founded in 1971 to fight hate and bigotry and champion civil rights – as of February 2019 identified more than 1,700 "publicly sponsored symbols" honoring Confederate leaders, soldiers or the Confederacy, in general. That includes monuments and statues, roads and schools. Robert E. Lee, the adroit general and West Point graduate who ultimately surrendered at Appomattox Court House, was the most frequent honoree, the center found.
Jefferson Davis was the second most frequent.
In 2015, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds, a watershed moment that followed the white supremacist killing of nine black worshippers, including a state senator, at a Charleston church, Emanuel AME.
The killer, Dylann Roof, had previously posed with the Confederate flags and had scribed a racist manifesto.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham on June 22 said he was in favor of taking down the Meriwether Monument: "I don't see why we want to memorialize that event in 2020." And in the historic city of Charleston, once a key slavery port and market, crews this week took down a towering statue of Calhoun in Marion Square, an acres-large downtown green space.
The process took more than 12 hours.
The Palmetto State's decades-old Heritage Act shields and makes sacred war-tied monuments and dedicated roads, parks and other places by requiring a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to effect change. More than 11,200 people have signed a petition demanding the repeal of the act.
Staff writers Lindsey Hodges and Dede Biles contributed to this report.