By Paul V. DeMarco
Casting a likeness in bronze and setting it on public property establishes a long-term relationship between a community and the person being honored. Some communities, spurred by an awakened consciousness of the messages Confederate statues send, have chosen to remove them. Others have added markers to provide a broader historical context than the monument alone provides.
But few are placing new statues to honor Confederates. Enter Florence County Council, which has decided by a 5-4 vote that 2022 was finally the time for Florence to do so. “This guy (William Wallace Harllee) formed the reason the town is here,” Council member and statue supporter Kent Caudle told The Post and Courier. “I don’t think that has anything to do with racism.”
Placing a statue because it acknowledges a historical person or event is not rationale enough. Those who argue that statues teach us history misunderstand their purpose. There is not enough bronze in the world to properly convey a complete picture of Florence’s 150 years of history. Learning that history requires reading, walking the streets, visiting the museum, and talking with those whose families have lived there for generations.
Statues accomplish a different objective. The best statues are about our values and our future. They capture someone whose life embodies important and timeless principles, ones that can continue to guide us. The worst statues point only backwards, evincing nostalgia for a romanticized version of the past.
Weighing a person’s life is an uncomfortable but critical part of the process. The key is to determine the person’s primary legacy. Lincoln had disabling bouts of depression and, although he always opposed slavery, whether he truly believed blacks were the equals of whites is a question historians still debate. But summing up Lincoln’s life, these are just footnotes. He was the Great Emancipator and Commander-in-Chief in the war that preserved the Union.
The County Council should apply a similar rubric to their decision to place a statue of Harllee at the Florence County Museum. Here is how I would encapsulate his life: He was a lawyer, businessman, military officer, and legislator from the Pee Dee who was lieutenant governor from 1860-1862, during the time South Carolina seceded from the Union. The fact that Florence is named after his daughter is a footnote in his story.
It seems strange that the County Council would want to honor this man, even stranger that it would override the museum board’s unanimous vote rejecting displaying the statue on museum property.
Perhaps if Gen. Harllee had a strong connection to Florence or had been an important part of the city’s development, it might make more sense. Gen. Harllee did found the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad in 1852, which was first railroad to locate a depot near what would become Florence. However, Harllee resigned from the company in 1855. Florence was not established until 1872, and Harllee did not live there until 1889. Florence Harllee’s obituary from 1925 states that the railroad construction superintendent, Colonel Fleming, gave the depot the name Florence during its construction circa 1853.
The statue, which is titled “This Place Will Be Called In Your Name, Florence” and shows a larger-than-life Harllee standing beside a railroad track with his left hand on Florence’s shoulder, is deceiving. It invites us to believe we are seeing Gen. Harllee sharing with his daughter a vision of the great metropolis into which her namesake city will grow. However, it appears that Gen. Harllee had no such vision; it was someone else who suggested the name.
The lives of Gen. Harllee and Florence are well documented in the museum as well as online. The sculpture, in the vein of other Lost Cause memorials, attempts to rewrite and idealize the city’s history. Some cities are named after giants. Florence is named after the daughter of a secessionist who oversaw South Carolina’s decision to go to war for the right to continue to enslave. This is a history to be overcome, not to be celebrated.
I do not intend to besmirch the name of the daughter, Florence. She was a devout woman who was proud of her city. She lived more than three decades in Florence, and served the community as a teacher. At one point, Florence was her town’s librarian.
It’s doubtful that Florence would have enjoyed all the fuss we are currently making. According to an article in the Florence News Journal in 2015, she was “quiet and unassuming.” In 1923, when she was seventy-four, she was invited to an elaborate celebration marking the opening of a bridge spanning the Great Pee Dee River to connect Florence and Marion counties. Seats for her and several other family members were reserved, and she was to be publicly recognized. The article reports that Florence said “The very idea of being willing to make a spectacle of ourselves!” and wrote back to the planning committee to politely decline their invitation.
Harllee’s ancestors and other admirers had every right to commission this sculpture. But it is a private homage and up to them to find private property on which to display it (although I would urge them not to display it at all). No public funds should be spent on it nor should it be displayed on public property, because it doesn’t do what public sculpture must do: ignite a sense of shared purpose, reminding us of those in our past whose values can propel us into the future.
Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, SC. Reach him at email@example.com. A version of this article appeared in the Florence Morning News on 8/17/22.
Postscript: On 8/18, the members of the Florence County Council voted unanimously to reverse their decision after receiving a letter on 8/15 from the Harllee Memorial Statue Committee asking them to do so. The letter stated “It was never the intent of the Harllee Memorial Sculpture Committee to cause any division in this great and prosperous community where we live, work, play, learn and enjoy life.” The Florence branch of the NAACP deserves the credit for mobilizing the community. The council had already received the letter by the time my column was published, so it likely played no role in their decision. I’m just glad they came to their senses so quickly.