Secession Ball Sparks Controversy

South Carolina formally seceded from the Union 150 years ago, leading to the beginning of the Civil War. One of the planned events to mark the anniversary is a "Secession Ball" in the city of Charleston, in which revelers dress in period costume. The gala has sparked controversy and criticism. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley talks with Michel Martin about the event and reactions to it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa to those who are celebrating. Today we have a couple of stories about history and memory, and how, despite being rooted in the past, they can cut very deeply in the present.

We'll talk about how a political controversy involving race has embroiled the governor of Mississippi.

In a few minutes we'll hear about how the Gullah heritage survives and thrives in the hands of two chefs who are dedicated to keeping that heritage alive.

But first to the far more serious matter of how history should be remembered and presented today. One hundred and fifty years ago, South Carolina formally seceded from the Union, the beginning of a series of cataclysmic events that changed this country forever.

South Carolina began marking the anniversary with a series of public events, but one of the private events sparked demonstrations and headlines around the country. It was a secession ball in Charleston that included revelers dressed in period costume and a band playing "Dixie."

We've called upon the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, Joseph P. Riley, Jr., and he joins us now to tell us about all the events marking the anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JOSEPH P. RILEY, Jr. (Mayor, Charleston, South Carolina): Thank you, Michel. Happy holidays to you. Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Has it been difficult to figure out how to mark these events? I guess the question would be, was there ever a question of not marking these events, as significant as they are?

Mr. RILEY: You know it hasn't been difficult at all. This is a different time, and so we formed a diverse group, a biracial group of people of various interests, historians, representatives of the National Park Service that owns Fort Sumter, and have put together a four-and-a-half-year series of very significant learning and historical observation opportunities so that we will study the beginning of the Civil War, the end of the Civil War, and everything in between, from the eyes of all groups who were impacted by it.

MARTIN: The event that has gotten a lot of attention has been one which was put on by a private group, which was this secession ball. And we tried to talk to one of the organizers of the event, and we had a private conversation with him, but he just, for whatever reason, didn't want to have a conversation with us on the air.

But can you just talk a little bit about this event? I mean, many people just find it very hard to understand why you would have such an event where people, you know, dressed up in period costumes and so forth, and some people just find that odd. Can you just help us understand it, even though as I understand that this was not a city-sponsored group per se.

Mr. RILEY: Well, it's not only not per se, it was not - had no official sanctioning whatsoever - and quite at odds with the official work that we've been doing to present the realities of the Civil War.

You know, this is a free country, and so people have the right to have their private events. I felt it was important on that day when several hours before we unveiled the historical marker that explains where the ordinance of secession was signed, and the reasons for it, to make sure that there was no connection between that private ball that at least originally was slated as a celebratory event.

There's no basis for that, obviously. The ordinance of secession was written because of slavery. The statement, what they call the findings of secession, mentioned slavery 31 times, which was a horrible, immoral practice that the civilized world now rejects and repels even the thought that it was once practiced.

So I felt, and I know the majority of my citizens - the overwhelming majority of my citizens - felt it was not an event to celebrate. We observe it. It was the beginning of a huge tragedy, 620,000 lives were lost. That would be the equivalent today in America of six million Americans dying in a war fighting each other.

MARTIN: You said in your remarks, for example, I just want to read a couple of lines from your remarks at the unveiling of the commemorative plaque, which this took place on December 20th, by the way. You said, we do so quite solemnly. There can be no celebration in the recording of this moment, for this political act impelled a series of events that led to the Civil War, caused the loss of 620,000 Americans, over a million casualties, destroyed the economy of this region, and in many ways took a century for our nation to recover. And in some ways such a process continues.

I just wanted to point out that there are people who picketed the secession ball for all the reasons you described, and said this is completely inappropriate, but there are also people who complained about your remarks. They said that they weren't celebratory enough.

Mr. RILEY: Well, there really was only one heckler who was audible and, you know, this is America. We celebrate the fact that there can be strong differences of opinion, and we do so peacefully. But, you know, the south, and our country, spent a long time revising the history of the Civil War. Because the nation, and the south, after the tragedy was embarrassed that such a tragedy happened because of slavery.

So there are still some people who were taught that growing up a long time ago, that it was because of state's rights and slavery really, you know, didn't have a whole lot to do with it, which was completely false. And every serious historian in our nation that studies the Civil War knows and will tell you that it was caused by slavery.

So the fact that there was just one person discordant that day I think is a very positive sign. As I told the people in my remarks, the city where the Civil War started, 150, 148 years later, a majority of our citizens voted for an African-American for president of the United States. The majority of citizens in Charleston voted for Barack Obama. To me that's cause of a great celebration. I say that not politically, rather just what it means, and that's very prideful.

MARTIN: What do you think, though, it means, though, that there are at least some citizens who want to relive that period, but from the standpoint of the slave owners, who want to celebrate being part of that kind of a system and institution?

And, of course, visitors to the region will still see many people with the Confederate flags on their cars, and can you just help understand - those who are not from the area understand why there continues to be this attachment to this particular group or period?

Mr. RILEY: Well, it's a very, very small faction, and human feelings are complex. I think that it's just still dying, the notion that the Civil War wasn't caused by slavery, and the fact that we weren't confronted - the south really wasn't confronted sufficiently with the horrors of slavery. It was kind of merged with servitude and the tragic immoral ownership of humans and treating them roughly as you would non-human things that you owned.

We still have more work to do in explaining that. And interestingly, we're working on creating an African-American museum here in Charleston that we are going to be raising money. It's a national event. Forty percent of enslaved Africans who came to North America came to the port of Charleston.

We think that 80 percent of African-Americans in our country today have an ancestor who can trace their roots to Charleston. And so we have still more to do to get the full history across of what that period was like. So there are still, I think, some people who just haven't come to grips with that, but they're a very small minority I'm happy to say.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, Joseph Riley. We're talking about the secession day gala in his city, and also the other events that mark the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War that the war, of course, started with South Carolina's decision to secede from the Union.

So, Mr. Mayor, in the time that we have left, would you tell us about some of the other things that you hope people will think about when they are marking this important event, and some of the other events that are planned?

Mr. RILEY: Well, sure. And four and a half years from now, this will be going on, and it's the most beautiful city in America, so I hope everybody listening will come. We've got the firing of Fort Sumter which is April 11 and 12th next year.

We will mark Robert Smalls, African slave who stole a ship in 1862 from Charleston Harbor out to the Union forces and later became a congressman. We'll mark Battery Wagner that was immortalized in the film "Glory" which happened here. We will mark the Emancipation Proclamation. We will mark the Hunley submarine that the Confederate sailors gallantly built and perished, and we will mark the courage and valor of Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers.

You know, this is where the war began, and we feel a responsibility to ourselves and to our country to fully present the history so that when we emerge four and a half years from now, we'll have a deeper understanding of this cataclysmic event in our country's history, and celebrate that as the National Park Service motto for this - they own Fort Sumter as I mentioned, and operate it beautifully - is from Civil War to civil rights.

And we will end this period 400 years from now with an enhanced sense of pride in what has happened in America and, of course, a reminder of still the work that lies to be done.

MARTIN: And finally, Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask you, there are those who say -particularly people who feel more attachment and connection to the Confederate side of the war - the white Confederate side of the war - they'll say, why shouldn't they be proud of their history. Is there a way, you know, and one of the organizers of the secession ball did agree to speak to some reporters, and he said, look, we're not celebrating slavery. We're not crazy. But we have a right to be proud of our history too.

Mr. RILEY: Sure.

MARTIN: Do you think that's true, and what should that side be proud of?

Mr. RILEY: Well, they should be. There's plenty of opportunity for pride. The fact was to begin a war because your economy depended on owning slaves was wrong. So we can't get around that. It was wrong. But then these were people who were courageous and exhibited valor, who - and many - most of the people who fought in the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers, weren't slave owners. They were fighting for their state and they were fighting for what they believed in, and they made great sacrifices.

So there's - I mean, my great-grandfather walked home from Richmond. He was a Confederate soldier and, you know, the war was over. He walked 400-plus miles and raised a family and built a successful business. So there's plenty of ways to be prideful of the people. It's the - when we study history, we know that mistakes were made, and the mistake was that our country allowed slavery to begin with, that the Constitution didn't, you know, get rid of it, but there's plenty of opportunity for us to be proud all the way around, and the sacrifices of understanding that the cause of the war was wrong, but great courage and valor and duty and sacrifice was exhibited. Universal values from which we all can gain inspiration.

MARTIN: Joseph P. Riley, Jr. is the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, and he was kind enough to join us from his home office.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us, and happy new year to you.

Mr. RILEY: Well, same to you, Michel. And come to this beautiful city and see us.

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