Workers on Wednesday morning were struggling to lift the statue honoring the early 1800s South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun from a 115-foot-high perch overlooking Marion Square in downtown Charleston.
The move came hours after City Council voted on Tuesday evening to move the statue to a place of study and learning. For now it will be placed in protected storage.
Crews had been working since about midnight to free the statue from its base, sometimes using power tools, a harness and lifts.
Road closures surrounding Marion Square late Tuesday drew people to the spectacle.
Shortly before midnight, some were laughing as heavy equipment rolled down Meeting Street. Fences lining the sidewalk around the monument were moved and a semi truck with masking tape covering its logos and license plate pulled up in front of the statue carrying wooden pallets. Behind it, workers escorted heavy machinery west down Calhoun Street to the monument.
Two workers in a basket of a lift inspected the base of the Calhoun statue about 12:50 a.m. and returned to the ground about 10 minutes later.
With a towering crane dangling a harness for the statue, workers in separate lifts headed up toward the statue just before 3 a.m. They were met with applause from onlookers. Later workers used saws to cut apart the statue’s anchors to the monument. Well after the sun rose at 6:13 Wednesday morning, workers were still trying to pry the statue from its base.
At issue is the 6,000-pound statue standing 115 feet above the ground in Marion Square. The statue belongs to the city of Charleston, though the land it sits upon is privately held. City Council on Tuesday authorized the monument’s removal and relocation for educational purposes. Many of those council members watched the events unfold overnight in Marion Square.
As word of the statue’s pending demise spread, people began to gather at Marion Square.
Deandre Taylor, 19, and his sister De’Ashonae, 18, stood on Calhoun Street across from the statue looking on as crews set up fences and brought in heavy equipment. As the first steps toward bringing the monument down began, they reflected on growing up in the statue’s shadow.
The Taylor siblings said as young black people growing up in downtown Charleston they hope that bringing the statue down leads to more positive changes.
Both said they hope officials will find a way to change the name of Calhoun Street, the Francis Marion Hotel and other places that bear the names of slave owners and proponents of segregation.
Going to schools in Charleston, the brother and sister said, history textbooks glorified Calhoun too much, heavily favoring his achievements as a statesman over his role in defending slavery.
Tuesday morning, before City Council took its vote, Susan and William Lizak traveled from Wilmington, N.C., to Charleston to take in what could be their final view of the statue in Marion Square. They’ve visited the Holy City often for 14 years and said they were saddened the statue was being moved. They said it will take away a bit of the sense of living history that makes Charleston special.
“These statues are part of history, they are part of life. For them to take them down because it doesn’t suit their beliefs … it’s just destruction,” Susan Lizak, 56, said. “How are we going to teach our kids about history if we take all the statues down and change the names of the streets?”
Early Wednesday, the lone proponent in the park who felt the same way hoisted a copy of the Bill of Rights as she shouted at a group of onlookers. She told them, “Satan is the enemy, white people are not the enemy.” She was escorted from Marion Square but briefly returned a short time minutes later.
Tamika Gadsden was with a small group late Tuesday night at the edge of Marion Square. She paused to reflect on the moment.
“This is not a marker of progress for the city,” Gadsden said. “This is about resistance. This moment was about the uprising we saw across the country. We’re just happy that the mayor and the council came to the same conclusion as the people.”
Ashana Bell, who was there to watch the statue’s removal with her son’s girlfriend, said she is OK with the statue being placed in a museum as long as a true narrative of Calhoun’s history is reflected.
Calhoun was one of the most powerful men to hail from South Carolina in his day. He was a senator and vice president, but also owned a plantation, held slaves and pointed South Carolina in the direction of secession, though he died over a decade before the Civil War.
Tony Simmons, 46, was there to watch. He said watching the statue come down helped him grieve for Susie Jackson and Tywanza Sanders, two relatives killed five years ago in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, which is just up the street from Marion Square.
As someone who suffered such a loss, he said, seeing the statue come down served as a reminder of the pain he and his family went through and the black community goes through all too often. It’s not going to fix everything, he said, but the fact such a symbol is coming down is cathartic.
“We want to watch it face to face,” he said. “We don’t want to see it from the back.”
More than 20 police officers stood off to the side as a crowd of over 100 gathered just after 12:30 a.m. to watch. City crews set up flood lights. Television reporters recorded interviews. Some observers filmed videos of themselves, describing the moment. Some went home has the hours ticked by.
But City Council members remained into the wee hours. William Dudley Gregorie, Mike Seekings, Marie Delcioppo, Keith Waring and Robert Mitchell stood toward the back of the square as a man in the lift’s bucket moved toward Calhoun’s feet.
Gregorie, recently appointed a co-chair of a committee examining racial disparities in the city, said he felt incredible.
“Hopefully very soon hate won’t hover over our city anymore,” Gregorie said. “That icon is part of what we have to do as a city — deconstruct and reconstruct appropriately.”
Waring said the statue’s removal for Charleston’s black community is as close a symbolic gesture as taking the battle flag off the state Capitol.
“Thank God for these young people speaking the truth,” Waring said.
Waring voted against the city apology two years ago because he felt that “words without action mean nothing.” Early Wednesday morning, he said that apology had turned into action — a racial bias audit of the police department and steps to move forward, the creation of a committee to review racial disparity in the city and the removal of the Calhoun monument.
Mitchell, who called for the motion during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, represents the district that includes Marion Square.
“It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I really took notice of the statue and asked what it was about,” Mitchell said. “When I learned it was a statue to a man who wanted to keep slavery in place, I asked, ‘Why do we have that man sitting on a pedestal?'”
For years, he has fielded calls from people who wanted to remove the statue. He told them the city couldn’t do anything because of the Heritage Act, a state law enacted after the Confederate flag was removed from the Capitol in 2000.
After some research, city attorneys learned the monument was owned by the city and they could take it down.
Mayor John Tecklenburg looked on at the crowd that lingered by the statue about 2:15 a.m. He said he was excited for the city’s next chapter.
“I hope it got through to everyone that this is about putting history in the right context,” Tecklenburg said. “It’s so commanding, it’s edified and almost deitified. Coupled with his stance on the institution of slavery, it’s just wrong.”
Tecklenburg said it was time for the statue to come down.
“You look around the country and the world, the scab of racism was pulled off again and folks are more receptive face inequities around the world.”
Observer Edward Jones, a 61-year-old East Side resident, stood in front of the monument early Wednesday morning.
“I’m feeling excellent,” Jones said. “It’s excellent to be a part, to be seeing history.”
Jones said he watched City Council on Tuesday night and when the vote came through unanimously, “tears of joy” came to his eyes.
He said the statue’s removal means, to him, that City Council is really listening to the young protesters. He wants the city to set up a listening forum with young adults to keep lines of communication open.
Ashton Calloway, 17, of Charleston, looked forward to the change.
“After having this thing looming over me my entire life, as a person of color in 2020, I’m happy to see this symbol of slavery come down,” Calloway said. “It just shows that we’re being heard and that the people in power are on our side for once.”
Calloway said she knows that bringing the monument down won’t fix everything, but said it’s a start to some much-needed racial reconciliation in Charleston.
And after weeks of witnessing protesters arrested on the streets of Charleston and around the nation, and seeing law enforcement deploy tear gas, pepper spray and other uses of force against people of color, Calloway said seeing the monument come down will be a much-needed moment of catharsis.
“It brings hope,” Calloway said.
Sara Coello contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.