Erstwhile: A History Blog

Moving away from monuments: Doing southern history well at two South Carolina house museums

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In the fourth installment of “The Monuments Among Us” series (see Sara Porterfield’s post on Bears Ears here, Travis May’s discussion of British memorials here and Alessandra Link’s reflection on Louisville’s city parks here), Erstwhile contributing editor Caroline Grego considers how two house museums in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, could provide a counterpoint to Confederate statuary. The featured image shows members of the grassroots organization that saved the Mann-Simons site from demolition and reopened it as the Center for Black History, Art, and Folklore in 1978, celebrating their victory on the steps of the house.

I have written on this website many times about the fraught history of my home state of South Carolina. I could easily have written this piece, part of our series on monuments, about the statue of John C. Calhoun at Marion Square in Charleston, just two blocks away from Mother Emanuel A.M.E. I could have written about the racist, cruel men memorialized on the Statehouse grounds, such as J. Marion Sims, a “doctor” who, despite mutilating and torturing enslaved and impoverished women in the name of medical science, is honored as the father of gynecology. Or men like Benjamin R. Tillman, General Wade Hampton III, and the late Senator Strom Thurmond, who join Sims in a throng of reprehensible historical actors who crowd the azalea bushes and genteel gardens around the copper-domed Statehouse, raised by white southerners who sought to justify the Confederacy and Jim Crow racial discrimination.

Today, though, I am going to write about South Carolina history done well and accessibly. Over this past winter break, I toured two historic homes: the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and the Mann-Simons Site, both run by the Historic Columbia Foundation in Columbia, South Carolina. While I had already visited them both twice before, I was struck on my most recent visit by the realization that the two houses, which wind together individual biographies and larger histories, represent a middle ground of public historical engagement. These museums provide rigorous but accessible engagement with historical scholarship without the time commitment of reading an academic text and without the objectionable memorialization of historical figures that statues deliver. South Carolina is rife with statues that glorify political figures without contextualizing them. Statues are not a history education in and of themselves, but historical artifacts that are a part of the ideologies, politics, and culture of the people who erected them. Now, museums are certainly not outside of history either. However, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home and the Mann-Simons Site do history well. I want to write, then, about the potential that house museums like these hold for the future of memorialization and public engagement with history.

The Woodrow Wilson Family Home. Photo by author.

The Woodrow Wilson Family Home has a deceptive name. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1921) only lived in this Italianate-Revival style house as a teenager with his family from 1871 to 1874. The house has stripped walls and floors which do not emulate the fussy, ornate carpets and wallpaper of the Victorian era in which it was built, because this is not a house museum, but a museum within a house. Historic Columbia’s intention is not to display the furnishings and tactile pieces of the Wilson family’s life in Columbia, but to couch their life there within an historical moment. The museum juxtaposes Wilson’s youth in Columbia with the tragic, violent end of Reconstruction in South Carolina. It is, as such, the only museum in the entire country dedicated to Reconstruction. Historic Columbia, which opened the museum to the public in 2015 after a long renovation, describes the museum’s purpose this way: to “explore the racial, social and political landscape of Columbia and Richland County from 1865 through 1877, an era in which formerly enslaved African Americans negotiated the opportunities and obstacles faced as new citizens of the United States.”[1]

Among one of the most complicated and important parts of the museum’s interpretation, the museum does not allow Wilson to escape unexamined. Wilson, in his racist views, scholarship, and politics, was complicit and participated in a distortion of Reconstruction’s legacies in the public memory. The museum frequently calls attention to Wilson’s privilege as a young, well-off white man during the Reconstruction years and the racist views that he espoused during his careers as a historian and politician. It includes, for example, a video on Wilson’s screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915) at the White House, the infamous movie about Reconstruction that depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and African American freedmen as rapists and incompetents.

Interpretive panels, artifacts, and, yes, the occasional piece of furniture from the Wilson family’s collection, an interactive map of Columbia in the 1870s, and political flyers and other items collected from the Reconstruction years provide tangible markers to support the tour guide’s interpretation. Neither the Woodrow Wilson Family Home nor the Mann-Simons Site can be visited without a Historic Columbia guide, in fact, ensuring that everyone who visits will receive a thorough tour of the houses. The guide, buoyed by each room’s thematic focus, describes the transformations of Reconstruction, as newly freed African Americans worked to build a new, just society and community, to its bloody end in 1876, when former Confederate General Wade Hampton III, a Democrat, conducted a coup to seize the state’s governorship through militia-led violence, widespread voter intimidation, and voter fraud.

Two panels at Historic Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home that tell the history of Reconstruction. Photo by author.

The interpretive panels also tell the story of Black Columbians’ social, cultural, and political activities during Reconstruction. Merchant and tailor Robert John Palmer, for example, was a city council member and real estate investor who later represented Richland County in the State House of Representatives. In 1870, Baptist missionaries founded the Benedict Institute, today’s Benedict College, a historically Black college. Charlotte Rollin, a Black political activist, chaired a women’s rights convention in Columbia in 1870 and went on to found a South Carolina branch of the American Woman Suffrage Association. The museum deftly connects these individuals to Reconstruction and its groundbreaking accomplishments. Reconstruction, as one panel said, “created a more professional government at the state and local levels with broader public participation.” As the museum explains, free public education, increased political engagement, public services, and economic growth were key hallmarks of Reconstruction in Columbia. Keep in mind that in a state where white political leaders have, for the past 150 years, excoriated the legacies of Reconstruction as corrupt, bloated, and damaging to justify their own racism and political monopoly, this is a bold statement – albeit one carefully, accurately evidenced and supported by historical scholarship.

A panel at Historic Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home on the desegregation of USC during Reconstruction. Photo by author.

Historic Columbia does not shy away from the violence of the undemocratic, white supremacist campaign to overthrow the state’s Republican Party and to wipe away any African American political influence. One panel entitled, in bold, capitalized letters, “POLITICAL TERRORISM,” describes the efforts of white South Carolinians to stymie Reconstruction as it was ongoing, naming the assassination of the state Republican Chairman Benjamin F. Randolph in 1868 as an example. Another panel explores the role of Hampton’s militia, the Red Shirts, during the election season of 1876 as they executed, assassinated, and murdered dozens of African Americans to push them out of the voting booths and out of the state’s political life. The final panels describe how “white public memory imagined the overthrow of Reconstruction as a virtuous uprising.” The Woodrow Wilson Family Home, despite its gentle name, takes bold steps to present a corrective and historically accurate narrative of Reconstruction to the public.

The Mann-Simons Site is a smaller, humbler home, but no less historically significant, carefully restored, or thoughtfully curated. It depicts equally radical and necessary histories. The centerpiece of the site, a lovely white clapboard house with wide porches, was built by 1872 to replace an older home on a lot owned since 1843 by Celia Mann. Mann was born into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1799. Trained as a midwife, she somehow obtained her freedom, perhaps after being purchased and subsequently manumitted by Ben DeLane. DeLane, a Black boatman, deeded her the half-acre tract on which the house now sits in 1843, while they were husband and wife. Mann died in 1867, leaving the property to her daughter Agnes Jackson (1831-1907). Historic Columbia begins with Celia Mann’s story, but continues through the mid-twentieth-century and emphasizes the history of Jim Crow in Columbia.

The Mann-Simons family home, built by 1872. Photo by author.

Celia Mann, Agnes Jackson, and their descendants owned the half-acre of land at the corner of Richland and Marion streets until 1970. That year, the Columbia Housing Authority obtained the lot under eminent domain and proposed bulldozing the home to build a low-income housing development. African American activists, including one of Celia Mann’s descendants Robbie Atkinson, fought to preserve the house, had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and retooled it as the Center for Black History, Art, and Folklore in 1978. It has been used as a museum ever since, undergoing major excavations between 2005 and 2012. These excavations revealed that the family had used the land as “a collection of commercial and domestic spaces,” over the course of generations.[2] The archaeological dig, when combined with archival research, showed that the family had managed a lunch counter, a grocery store, and rental houses. Each generation seems to have retooled the site, remaking it for their own purposes and shifting the use of the property to suit their needs.

Historic Columbia focuses, first, on Celia Mann’s remarkable story. Owning property as a Black woman in Columbia’s tiny antebellum free Black population was a rarity. Maintaining that ownership, as her daughter Agnes did, through the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, demonstrated similar resilience. Other descendants of the family continued their legacies, working to support their family and expand their economic future, and pushing against Jim Crow whenever possible. John Lucius Sr. and Charles Hall Simons (1865-1933), two of Agnes’s sons, were members of the Freemasons in Capital City Lodge No. 47. The fraternal order has old roots in the African American community, emanating from the famous Black Freemason Prince Hall’s activism in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Charles Simons, who wrote an editorial to The State newspaper in 1895 excoriating the police who tried to raid his home without a warrant, seems to have habitually pushed the era’s segregation and discrimination. According to archival records, Charles and his wife Amanda rented the small houses on their property to white immigrants from eastern and southern Europe in the early 1900s, a fact which complicates the Jim Crow segregation that dominated the city at the time. The Mann-Simons family history, as Historic Columbia presents it, reveals how everyday choices and actions were interwoven with and inextricable from local, regional, and national political currents.

Photographs of Charles, in his regalia, and Amanda Simons at Historic Columbia’s Mann-Simons Site. Photo by author.

As effectively as the story of the Mann-Simons family is told through interpretive panels, maps, artifacts, and videos (including an interview with Celia Smith, a young descendant of Celia Mann), one of the site’s features is outside the norm of museum interpretation. Historic Columbia has placed five strikingly creative and evocative “ghost structures” that represent the other buildings that once existed on the lot. These ghost structures are white frames that match the placement, footprint, and dimensions of some of the businesses and rental houses that the Mann-Simons family operated. The house alongside the ghost structures evince a sense of habitation and activity, as it must have for much of its life with the Mann-Simons family.

The back of the Mann-Simons home, surrounded by ghost structures. Photo by author.

Historic Columbia places these two individual homes and families within a larger historical context, using their stories to illuminate and ground local and regional political, social, and economic changes. The homes and the interpretation are memorials not just to individuals, then, but to more inclusive, more radical, and more thoughtful histories. In a city and a state with its fair share of monuments to slaveholders, Confederate brass, and other assorted white supremacists, these two houses demonstrate what can and should replace the statues of these men . They show the possibilities of public engagement with critical, conscientious history. They present a way forward.

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[1] https://www.historiccolumbia.org/woodrow-wilson-family-home

[2] https://www.historiccolumbia.org/mann-simons-site

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