The South Carolina General Assembly erected the “Hamburg Riot” monument in North Augusta in 1916, and today’s body will probably have to take action if it is to be changed or moved.
At a City Council meeting Monday night, freelance journalist Kenton J. Makin addressed the body, reminding it that the monument honors a spasm of white violence against black people and he called for it to be removed.
“Ultimately, I am calling on you all as government officials to take this monument down. At the very least, as a governing body, I am calling on you all to make a formal denouncement of the monument, what it stands for and what it reads,” he said, reading from a statement. “At this very crucial time, a failure to take down the monument, or at the very least, formally denounce this monument, represents an acceptance of the hateful commentary present on the obelisk.”
Mayor Bob Pettit, who spoke with Makin before the meeting, said he was “appalled … by the words on that obelisk” and announced that he would establish a committee of citizens to recommend an appropriate course of action, and that he had asked people “knowledgeable about the Hamburg Massacre” to be part of it.
Though Pettit, like many North Augustans, had been unaware of the monument’s message, he said he was “pleased it’s come up so we can discuss it.”
The people who erected the monument in 1916 called it the “Hamburg Riot.” Its black victims have long called it the “Hamburg Massacre,” as do most people today who knows what happened.
The monument – in Calhoun Park in front of Lookaway Hall at the intersection of Georgia and South Carolina avenues – is dedicated to Thomas McKie Meriwether, the lone white person killed on June 8, 1876. It makes no mention of the seven black people killed — four of whom were executed after they were taken prisoner.
“In life he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal,” reads one of the inscriptions about Meriwether. Makin calls it disgraceful.
Not until 2016, 100 years after the first monument was erected, were black victims recognized with a historical marker that was put up by a diverse group of local residents including historians, to set the record straight.
“We’ve done a little bit toward correcting things, but we’re not through,” said Milledge Murray, president of the town’s Heritage Council. He designed part of the new memorial, a gravestone-like granite marker that bears the name of all eight victims, including Meriwether, as a gesture of goodwill.
At the 2016 dedication, then-Mayor Lark Jones drew on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and declared it “fitting and right” that the town should learn from the mistakes of the past and look ahead to a brighter, more hopeful future.
Brenda Baratto, the executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, said that now if she’s asked whether blacks were excluded from the history of the massacre, she can say: “It was true but it’s not true any longer.”
The events that led to the massacre began July 4, 1876, when two white men driving a carriage through Hamburg, an all-black town on the banks of the Savannah River, were delayed by a parade of the town’s militia, which functioned as its police force and was then part of the South Carolina Guard during the Reconstruction era.
Whites later demanded that the militia be disbanded and tensions rose. On July 8, about 100 armed whites surrounded about 40 blacks at the militia’s armory and shots were fired.
Meriwether, a white farmer who was part of the armed group, was killed. Some of the militiamen and other freed men slipped away after darkness fell, but about two dozen were caught by the white mob, which picked out and executed four of them: Allen Attaway, David Phillips, Hampton Stephens and Albert Myniart.
Other black victims – Jim Cook, Nelder Parker and Moses Parks – died of wounds suffered in the armory fight or as they fled the scene of the executions.
Though 94 white men were indicted by a grand jury, none were prosecuted. The massacre spawned violence elsewhere – in Ellenton, for example, where 100 blacks were killed – and drew national attention.
The New York Times published a letter from South Carolina’s Gov. D.H. Chamberlain to President Ulysses S. Grant, saying, “The demand which was made by the mob upon the militia company for the surrender of their arms, taken in connection with the fact that the militia are not shown to have committed or threatened any injury to any persons in that community, would seem to indicate a purpose to deprive the militia of their rights on account of their race or political opinions.”
Grant told the U.S. Senate that the Hamburg violence was a “disgraceful and brutal slaughter of unoffending men.” Famous cartoonist Thomas Nast memorialized it in a drawing for Harper’s Weekly.
Reconstruction soon ended when federal troops were withdrawn across the South, and the Jim Crow era of racial segregation began.
Forty years later, the state of South Carolina, “with the aid of admiring friends,” erected the downtown memorial to Meriwether.
As late as 1956, when North Augusta celebrated its 50th anniversary, an account of the 1876 events in the official program says the killings happened after “two young white citizens of Edgefield, who were returning from Augusta by way of Hamburg, were stopped and insulted by these negro soldiers.”
The four who were executed were killed “as an example to the rest,” the program says.
Makin’s request to North Augusta comes at a time when the nation is debating what to do about monuments that commemorate perceived racist actions or ideals.
Augusta’s NAACP chapter recently held a rally as a kickoff to its effort to alter or remove the downtown Confederate memorial, which bears an inscription to the “pure and white” nation created by secession. Violence at the University of Virginia over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee has energized the cause for many.
Others say history should be preserved, presented warts and all, and discussed accordingly to avoid repeating its mistakes.
South Carolina passed a law in 2000 to keep any authority to change or remove monuments in the hands of the Legislature. It requires the Senate and House to pass by a two-thirds vote any changes to war monuments or public property named for historical figures.
Whether the “Hamburg Riot” monument falls under the law’s protection is not clear. North Augusta City Attorney Kelly Zier was asked by Pettit to ask for an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office, but it declined to comment because of a pending lawsuit.
The town of Greenwood, S.C., sued because it wanted to desegregate a list of names on a World War I monument that had been grouped by race but couldn’t because of the law.
Until that’s resolved, or unless the Legislature changes the law, North Augusta probably won’t be able to do anything about moving the old monument.
But it could add a new one, Murray, the Heritage Council president, pointed out.
“There needs to be another marker to even the playing field,” he said. “We don’t need to move it. We don’t want to erase history. We want a young person to see how we reflect on it today. Don’t hide anything.”
Reach James Folker at (706) 823-3338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.