For Memorial Day today, I had planned to simply republish “The Memorial Day history forgot: The Martyrs of the Race Course.” which tells the story of the first Memorial Day, which took place on May 1, 1865. In it I cited historian David W. Blight who wrote:
During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course."
Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before."
However, watching the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans and listening to NOLA Mayor Mitch Landrieu's historic speech on monument removal made me think of other monuments, like the one to Wade Hampton III shown above. Landrieu said:
These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone's lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy.
I changed my mind about doing a simple republish. I started thinking about the Union soldiers who had been buried in a place now named for Confederate General Wade Hampton III and that the place where black Americans celebrated is now a park named for him—a man whose family wealth accrued from the blood and tears of black folks in bondage.
I thought about the history of the slave state of South Carolina, about the members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the approximately one third of the states’ population who are black, who pay taxes to have a state capitol which has a statue of Hampton proudly displayed and an office building named for him. The man was not only “one of the largest slaveholders in the Southeast“ he was also a terrorist:
Hampton was a slaveowner and a general in the Confederate army who became governor in 1876—the first Democrat to hold that office after the Civil War—and was later a U.S. senator. His gubernatorial election followed a campaign of terror by Democratic “Red Shirt” groups, who by one account killed some 150 black citizens in the months before voting was held. The groups' organizing principles explicitly encouraged the murder of Republicans and the suppression of black voters: That Hampton benefited from these death squads and took power in part because of paramilitary violence is not incidental to his place in South Carolina’s official history.
Hampton’s name is ubiquitous around the state and beyond. Wikipedia lists his “Legacy and Honors”:
Legacy and Honors
Statues of him were erected in the South Carolina State House building and in the United States Capitol. An equestrian statue by Frederick W. Ruckstull was erected on the grounds of the S.C. state capitol in Columbia, in 1906.
In the wake of the June 17, 2015, massacre at the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by white supremacist Dylann Roof, there was a push to remove Confederate symbols in the United States Capitol, including the Hampton statue. Congressional representatives voted to retain the statues.
To honor Hampton for his leadership in the Civil War and the "redemption" of the state from Reconstruction-era reforms, the General Assembly created Hampton County from Beaufort County in 1878. The town of Hampton Courthouse, later shortened to Hampton, was incorporated on December 23, 1879, to serve as the county seat of Hampton County
Across South Carolina, many towns and cities renamed streets for him. At least eight municipalities in South Carolina have a street named "Wade Hampton" (Beaufort, Charleston, Duncan, Greenville, Greer, Hampton, Taylors, and Walterboro) and approximately 47 towns in the state have streets named "Hampton". Two high schools in South Carolina are named Wade Hampton High School: in Greenville and in Varnville. A residence hall at Hampton's alma mater, the University of South Carolina, was named for him.
A Hampton Park was dedicated in Charleston and another in Columbia in his honor. The historic Hampton Heights neighborhood in Spartanburg is named after him. In 1964, Wade Hampton Academy was started in Orangeburg, considered a segregation academy. The school merged with Willington Academy in 1986 to become Orangeburg Preparatory Schools, Inc.
In 1913, Judge John Randolph Tucker named the Wade Hampton Census Area in Alaska to commemorate his father-in-law (it was renamed Kusilvak Census Area in 2015).
An artillery battery was named after Wade Hampton at Fort Crockett, built on Galveston Island, Texas. The Wade Hampton Battery was one of four coastal artillery batteries and contained two 10-inch guns. During World War II, the SS Wade Hampton, a Liberty ship named in honor of the general, was sunk off the coast of Greenland by a German U-boat.
In Greenville County, South Carolina, the section of U.S. Route 29 that connects the city of Greenville to Spartanburg is called Wade Hampton Boulevard. There is also a fire district (Wade Hampton Fire Department) named in his honor placed on the east side of Greenville, adjoining the Greenville city limits, which include Wade Hampton High School.
Some of the students at Wade Hampton H.S in Greenville, South Carolina, are circulating a petition to change the school’s name:
A recent student-driven petition calling for the Greenville County School Board to change the name of Wade Hampton High School has garnered widespread press attention and prompted rancorous debate on local social media.
Hampton was a Confederate lieutenant general, one of the largest slaveholders in the Southeast and, by today’s standards, a blatant “racist,” according to historians.
Hundreds of students and their supporters say the name of Wade Hampton no longer deserves to be honored by a modern, respected and diverse Greenville high school.
“Honoring a man who owned and fought to keep students’ ancestors enslaved and oppressed is not only inappropriate but immoral,” said 16-year-old student Asha Marie, who wrote the change.org petition, which now includes 1,800 signatures.
A counter-petition, opposing the name change, has garnered more than 2,400 signatures.
I am heartened that young people are raising their voices to push back against monuments and honors for Confederates and supremacists.
In an age when we have a open racist sitting in the Oval Office, who has appointed blatant white supremacists to positions of power, the pushback and resistance is inspiring people to reexamine the depth of bigotry in what had simply been framed as “history.” Perhaps one day we can celebrate a Memorial Day when these shrines to hate and haters are simply an ugly memory.