South Carolina Lawmakers Propose Statue Honoring Black Confederate Soldiers

Confederate statues
Protesters gathered around the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year. Alec MacGillis/ProPublica via Reuters

Two South Carolina state representatives want to solve the national controversy over Confederate monuments in the most "dangerous" possible way: by putting up a statue of black rebel soldiers who supposedly fought for the South's right to own slaves.

On Monday, Reps. Bill Chumley and Mike Burns proposed a monument to black Confederate soldiers, whose contributions they say have been historically overlooked.

"This history is the truth and is being whitewashed," Burns, who is white, told the Post-Courier. "Some of our history is good and some of our history is not so good. But they deserve to be honored for what they did on behalf of South Carolina."

Problem is, the notion of a black soldier fighting for his beloved South is something of a myth, according to historians. The Confederacy legally barred African-Americans from fighting in the Civil War until its last month. And many slaves who were involved in the rebel war effort served primarily as servants to white officers, or performed other menial tasks.

"This black Confederate soldier myth has always been a part of a larger attempt to reinterpret the Confederacy to separate it from slavery and white supremacy," Civil War historian Kevin Levin tells Newsweek. "In other words, if African-Americans, free and enslaved, fought as soldiers in the Civil War, then you can't say today that its primary goal was the protection of slavery and white supremacy."

Levin, who is on the board of directors for the National Council for History Education, says the black Confederate soldier is a figure that has been conjured only in the last 40 years, rising to prominence in the 1970s in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. It's no coincidence either that many of the country's Confederate statues were erected during the Civil Rights era as reverential monuments to white supremacy.

The proposed monument of the black Confederate soldiers would join 31 other monuments at the South Carolina State House. Currently there's at least one monument on public property honoring African-Americans who supposedly fought for the Confederacy: a Fort Mill park monument lauding the Civil War's "faithful slaves."

"There were freed men who actually chose to fight because they thought the South was being oppressed," Burns told the Post-Courier. "It's a shame our third- and fifth-graders don't get to hear this side of the argument."

It's not a shame at all, Levin retorts.

"The [statue] proposal distorts and uses African-Americans ... to score political points," he says. "We have to be careful how we use the past to promote our own present-day agenda, because that's always a dangerous thing to do."

South Carolina had once been at the center of debates over how to deal with its Confederate past. Following the 2015 massacre of Charleston churchgoers, activist Bree Newsome was arrested for climbing the South Carolina State House's flagpole and removing its Confederate flag. The move sparked a nationwide debate over whether that flag should fly on government grounds; at the time, Chumley and Burns had both voted against a motion to remove it.

The representatives' proposal also arrives on the heels of a second white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where on Saturday night Richard Spencer and his cohorts returned wielding tiki torches and chanting "You will not replace us" and "We will be back." The same group of racist protesters had stormed Charlottesville back in August for its Unite the Right rally, a response to the city's plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

The debate over Confederate statues has mushroomed into a wider debate about history. Some say Confederate monuments should be replaced with ones honoring African-American heroes like Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X. Even non–Civil War monuments are being reconsidered: In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio created a commission to examine scores of commemorative statues, including a famous one of Christopher Columbus, to determine if they should be removed or reinterpreted.