Racially segregated war memorial plaques divide South Carolina town

Greenwood, S.C., is disputing what to do with war memorial plaques that reflect racial attitudes of the past

It was a noble gesture intended to salve the wounds of this former mill town’s segregated past.

Mayor Welborn Adams and the local American Legion raised $15,000 for new plaques on the town’s war memorial to replace ones that designate the dead from World Wars I and II as either “Colored” or “White.”

Instead of praise for righting the wrongs of the past, Adams was threatened with arrest and accused of whitewashing history.

“I know you can’t change history, but why keep segregating people by race?” Adams asked inside his downtown real estate office before strolling down the street to show a visitor the memorial and its worn bronze plaques.

Greenwood, a stately town of 23,000 people that is 45% black, now finds itself tangled in a controversy over wording that reflects attitudes in town — and in the U.S. military — from nearly 70 years ago.

Like many Southern towns, Greenwood is struggling to break free from the burdens of race and history. The town’s leaders say it long ago shed its Jim Crow legacy and now embraces diversity, although it is still home to separate white and black American Legion posts. Now, according to some residents, the issue is ensuring that the town’s segregationist past is not erased. They say history demands formal acknowledgment that the U.S. military was once segregated.

“History means telling the story — the whole story,” said Eric Williams of Greenwood, who spent 32 years as a U.S. Park Service historian. “You don’t leave out the ugly parts or the distasteful parts.”

Changing the plaques would destroy the memorial’s historical integrity, Williams said as he stood beside the commemorative plates, which list veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars alphabetically — with no racial designation. The military was desegregated in 1948.

“History cannot be altered,” said Williams, who is white. He suggested that the new plaques be installed at a local veterans museum with an “interpretive sign” explaining military segregation.

Adams, who is white and was born and raised in Greenwood, said of that suggestion: “That’s like saying, ‘We were racist then but we’re not now.’” He laughed and mentioned a 1950 line by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The South is dotted with towns haunted by the past. In Georgia, the towns of Waynesboro and Thomaston have similar war memorials, and other Southern memorials designate black veterans with a “C.” Clemson University is wrestling with demands to remove the name of Benjamin Tillman, a founding trustee and white supremacist, from an iconic campus building.

Statues and street names honoring Confederates are common sights in the South. Fears by some South Carolina whites that such tributes would be erased forced a compromise in a 2000 law that removed the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome in Columbia. The law also said no historical memorial may be “relocated, removed, distributed or altered” without legislative approval.

Adams, 48, said he first proposed changing the plaques during a speech four years ago to Greenwood’s white American Legion, which installed the memorial on city property in 1929, with World War II dead added later. The idea was rejected.

But last summer, the post’s executive committee voted 10 to 0 to remove the plaques, though some rank-and-file members remain opposed, said Dale Kittles, a committee member. The post worked with Adams to raise $15,000, with two blacks joining 41 whites in contributing. Adams wrote a $1,000 check.

“That memorial is for the warriors, not for the color of their skin,” said Kittles, 51, a white Army veteran and Legion committee member who proposed the vote. He also said he’d like the white and black posts to merge into one.

Retired Master Sgt. Thomas Waller, a prominent Greenwood veteran, says most local veterans want the “Colored” designation removed. Waller, 82, who is black, served 20 years in the Army.

“We trained together, shipped out together, fought and died together,” Waller said. “Nobody worried about whether you were white or black.”

Waller refused to join either American Legion in town because of their racial designations, but says he is not offended by the “Colored” plaques. “I just try to think ahead to the day when it won’t say black or white — just soldiers,” he said.

Blanton Smith, president of the Greenwood NAACP, said the “Colored” plaques were painful reminders of Jim Crow. “Those men on that memorial deserve better,” he said.

Adams scheduled a ceremony to unveil the new plaques at the memorial on Jan. 19 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But opposition was mounting, in part because of Adams’ comment to the local newspaper: “I think if history offends people, it needs to be rewritten if possible.” He says he now wishes he had said he was changing the way history is presented.

Randall Faulkner, a white Army veteran, threatened to swear out an arrest warrant against the mayor for violating the 2000 law. Faulkner said changing the plaques would be “almost an insult” to black soldiers who fought for freedoms white soldiers already enjoyed. He said their descendants should decide how they are honored.

“You lose a teaching point if you change it now,” he said.

A Dec. 28 editorial in the Index-Journal of Greenwood said the “Colored” plaques should remain, but with a new plaque added to explain that the nation’s armed forces were once segregated.

“Changing the plaques does not change the fact that there was a time when blacks and whites who served in our armed forces did indeed serve separately,” the editorial said. It added: “We cannot and really should not attempt to change our history.”

In fact, the editorial said, removing the “Colored” designation might even backfire by erasing public acknowledgment that blacks fought and died for their country despite overt racial discrimination.

On Jan. 19, Adams proceeded with the unveiling, although he couldn’t mount the plaques because of the state law. The event was attended by 40 black and white veterans in an emotional outpouring of support.

Richard Whiting, the Index-Journal editor and author of the Dec. 28 editorial, said the veterans’ response changed his mind.

In a Jan. 25 editorial, Whiting wrote that the existing plaques should be removed. The unveiling of the new plaques was “an incredibly powerful ceremony, a ceremony of unity, not acrimony,” he wrote.

“If the veterans want it changed, then I’m OK with it,” Whiting, who is white, said this month at his newspaper office, just down the street from the memorial. “Let’s move on. We have far greater things to deal with.”

Whiting said he worried that the controversy made them all “look like a bunch of backwoods rednecks.” While some Greenwood residents “still live with the hope the South will rise again,” he said, most residents support racial healing.

“We’re not the same community we were years ago,” he said.

State Sen. Floyd Nicholson, who is black and once served as Greenwood’s mayor, has introduced legislation to remove the “Colored” designations.

“We need to change with the times,” Nicholson said. “The bullets our soldiers took weren’t aimed at blacks or whites. Those soldiers fought for all Americans.”

But Nicholson said it would not be easy to overcome political opposition in a state whose history is weighted by the Civil War and a segregationist past. He said some people opposed to the new plaques resented black advancements, and editor Whiting said some opponents “still want to live in the past.’’

“We’ve come a long way, but we have a way to go,” Nicholson said.

Adams said: “There are some people who still look back fondly on that period of segregation.” He said continuing the “Colored” designations leaves Greenwood mired in the past, making it difficult to attract national and international investment.

The two-term mayor said he wept in his office when the town attorney told him that replacing the plaques required legislative approval. It still pains him now to see the shiny new plaques resting forlornly against an office wall at City Hall, waiting for Greenwood’s racial history to be resolved.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
48°