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.
I’ll just add a couple of quick points:
Paul writes that, “Some communities, spurred by an awakened consciousness of the messages Confederate statues send, have chosen to remove them.”
I dunno about that “awakened consciousness.” You’re being too polite. Everyone in those communities — whether they were for or against the monuments — understood what they were there for. Oh, they might have expressed it differently publicly, and even to themselves. But everyone got the message.
Later, Paul writes of Lincoln: “He was the Great Emancipator and Commander-in-Chief in the war that preserved the Union.” He was much more than that. He’s not just some guy who happened to be CinC at the time. He’s the guy who held the nation together when it had pulled apart. If not for Abe Lincoln, I’m pretty sure the North would have reached an accommodation with the South — basically, given up.
We tend to look upon Vietnam, and think the way the country turned against the war was somehow unique — that there was something uniquely WRONG about Vietnam, which the nation “realized.”
No. It was the same dynamic we’ve seen in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. And yes, it’s because of TV news and other things that caused U.S. resolve to wear down far more quickly than in the past. But with a democracy, or in our case a democratic republic, it’s always hard to maintain resolve. Even in WWII, censorship was strenuously employed to keep people from knowing about some of our greater and more disastrous losses and mistakes — such as the enormous foulups surrounding D-Day — such as the failed bombing of the beaches just before the landing, or the stupendous intelligence failure that led to our planners not understanding how massive Norman “hedgerows” were, and what advantages they offered German defenders.
Keeping the country committed was especially tough in the Civil War, and I continue to marvel at the way Lincoln managed it. I can’t imagine anyone else in our history accomplishing what he did…
Vietnam wasn’t a war and it was a black mark on U.S. history. It would be as heinous to celebrate any of the generals who led that misguided, horrific effort as it is to celebrate a Confederate general. The decision to enter Vietnam changed the course of American military history.. and we are all worse off because of it. It fostered the terrible idea of American intervention in places we didn’t belong and our trillion dollar defense budget is the result. Luckily, Americans could see how futile our efforts were.. no objective, no path to any type of victory, and countless innocent lives wasted.. often with the most brutal weapons and tactics. A national shame was finally able to overcome ghouls like Westmoreland, McNamara, Kissinger, and the rest.
Yes, we know that’s what you think. And a lot of people agree with you, so take comfort from that. Never mind that it’s based upon misconceptions about history, such as the idea that “our trillion dollar defense budget” resulted from Vietnam, rather than from the Cold War, of which Vietnam was but a piece.
As for your assertion that Vietnam “fostered the terrible idea of American intervention,” you might want to Google “Korean War.” Then, you might want to look up — well, I’m not going to type the long list here, but you can check this out.
For that matter, isolationism having been so popular before Dec. 7, 1941, if you could go back to then, you’d have almost a whole country agreeing with you that going over and fighting the Germans across Europe would definitely have been “intervention in places we didn’t belong,” and on a massive scale. This was before Hitler declared war on us, two days after Pearl Harbor — which was his second stupidest strategic move ever. His first was Operation Barbarosa.
But I’m not interested, even slightly, in arguing with you — or any of the other millions who think Vietnam was unique, and the worst thing that ever happened in human history — about this. I know it would be pointless.
Since I decided to post your view, I simply provided a couple of corrections to the factual errors. I’m done now. We could probably find agreement on the fact that this intervention, taken as a whole, did not go well for this country. But for us to come to agreement, you’d have to drop all the hyperbole. Which I know you won’t do, so…
Have a good day…
Quiet, unassuming, devout and the town’s librarian.
If I was putting up a statue, I think I’d want one of her put up. But this is South Carolina, where the great desire among some is to honor people that treated black people like garbage.
Yes, maybe that would make sense — a statue of the child for whom the town was named. Or of the woman she became.
The best argument Paul makes has nothing to do with the Confederacy or race or any of those things that get us all so worked up. It’s the simple fact that the girl’s father had a rather thin claim on having started the town. So why build a statue to him?
But her connection is definite and unmistakable…
well, maybe people from Florence don’t think it’s that quiet
but I think everyone in the state would identify Florence as unassuming and quiet. You almost forget it’s there – even though so many go right by it without stopping on the way to the beach.
When I mention Florence to people in the upstate, I often get blank stares as if they aren’t sure what I am talking about. I think a lot of folks just don’t even think about it. It’s a pretty big area but you don’t hear much about it outside of the town or county.
The town seems to fit the girl- or woman.
But of course, no reason to build a statue for her. Might as well choose someone that is a 21st century political disaster for the statue.
Speaking of Florence- well Darlington
Former WIS News investigator Jody Barr did this report for Fox in Charlotte.
This is a great investigatory piece. I have to wonder how often this happens in small towns and people commit murder and get away with it because of local politics – or local incompetence.
Or, as I just said, choose no one…
But hang on — did Barry and Doug just both make the same point, independent of each other (because the two comments were here waiting before I had approved either of them)? That’s interesting…
All you have to do is push for statues of Kissinger, McNamara, and Westmoreland… make the case.
To whom are you talking? Certainly not to me. Anyone who knows me knows those are arguments I would not make. Personally, I think we have enough statues. I should have added that to the comment where I said maybe Barry makes a good case for a statue of Florence. I should have said “… if we need any more statues, which I think we don’t.”…
Let’s face it……Florence has become an insignificant city that does not enjoy a good quality of life. Florence should have developed the Mars Bluff atomic bomb site, it should have preserved the air and missile museum and Francis Marion University should have a football team with a stadium downtown. Instead, sports illustrated described Florence as a “cesspool” when doing an article on Clayton Holmes….the best athlete ever produced by Florence. Florence should embrace its confederate history and monetize it…….but alas…..the Peee Dee get more poor and insignificant by the day. I am sooooo glad I no longer live there!
Well Will, I too am soooo glad you no longer live here. No need to return to visit either.
Francis Marion University is consistently ranked as one of the top universities in the South, usually around the 60 mark. The university is enjoying a rise in enrollment and upgrading facilities and adding new degreed programs for regional, out-of-state, and foreign students.
When did Sports Illustrated become the authority on the quality of life in any city, much less Florence? A “cesspool”? The writer must have expected to be welcomed with a banquet in his or her honor and be treated like a first-rate celebrity. But, if SI is the source of judging cities and accepted as fact, something is way off base on both sides.
The quality of life is as good as anywhere else in the state although not as “sophisticated” and “culturally significant” as others but overall, life is good in Florence.
Florence is one of the best cities for health care in the state and in the Southeast with McLeod Regional and now MUSC Regional (formerly Carolinas Hospital). People seeking healthcare come to Florence from all over the state, North Carolina, and other states due to the great diversity of highly qualified physicians and specialists.
Downtown Florence has experienced a revival and the old buildings are once again being converted to modern business opportunities and some of the better restaurants in the region enjoying great success. The support for new entrepreneurs is strong and encouraging for all residents who wish to make life better in this “cesspool”.
So, good for you and your flight from such horrible living conditions and struggling with life in a poor and insignificant Pee Dee region.