A Walking Tour of the State House Grounds
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- A Midlands Weekend
- Civil War Adventures
- South Carolina Waterways
- Three Days in Horse Country
- South Carolina for Seafoodies
- South Carolina Kitsch
- Gullah and African American History
- Upstate Weekend
- South Carolina’s Top Ten for Golfers
- South Carolina’s Offbeat Festivals
- Southern Comforts
- Lowcountry Romance
One of the most satisfying things to do on a nice day in Columbia is stroll the expansive grounds of the State House (1101 Gervais St., 803/734-2430, www.scstatehouse.gov, free). It’s pleasant and relaxing, but interesting as well — the various tributes and monuments, many of them somewhat politically incorrect, are a lively and evolving chronicle of South Carolina’s history and quirky politics.
Following is a walking tour of the highlights. As you take it all in, do note the abundance of plant and tree life, all lovingly landscaped.
Start at the entrance on Gervais Street, at the Confederate Monument. At one time, the rebel Stars and Bars flew over the State House itself. However, after negative media attention in the 1990s and a threatened national boycott, the Confederate battle flag was moved to fly alongside this 1879 monument instead.
To the immediate left is the 1941 Spanish-American War Monument. In the same vein, continue east to find the Gun from the USS Maine, an artifact from the ship whose destruction started the conflict with Spain.
Continue on the curved walkway until it parallels Sumter Street. Here you’ll find the Revolutionary War Generals Monument, commemorating that menagerie of guerrilla freedom fighters: Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, Thomas “Gamecock” Sumter, and Andrew “Wizard Owl” Pickens. A short distance south is a time capsule set to open on the 250th anniversary of the founding of Columbia.
Now walk along the pathway directly toward the State House to the African American History Monument, a comparatively late addition to the grounds and the first of its kind on any American capitol grounds. The dozen vignettes on the monument depict various chapters in the struggle for civil rights from slavery through today. At the base of the monument are four rubbing stones, each representing a different region of Africa from which slaves were imported.
Walk south to the big equestrian statue. This is Wade Hampton III, general-turned-progressive governor, who despite his impeccable Confederate pedigree did a remarkable amount for African Americans after Reconstruction. The statue was erected in 1906, a scant four years after the influential war hero and statesman’s death.
Continue west to the Strom Thurmond Monument, one of the more controversial memorials on the State House grounds. Though the statue depicts the longtime senator and conservative icon at the ripe young age of 60, Thurmond himself attended the unveiling of it in 1999 — when he was 97. He would eventually retire from the Senate at age 100 as the nation’s longest-serving senator, and he died in 2003.
Most interestingly — and ironically, given Thurmond’s long support of segregation and opposition to civil rights — the list of his children was amended to include a mixed-race daughter he had out of wedlock, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, now 84. Her mother, Carrie Butler, had an affair with Thurmond when she was 15 while serving as the family maid, and her daughter kept the secret until after his death. Ms. Washington-Williams now lives in Los Angeles, and wrote an account of her life and relationship with Thurmond, Dear Senator, in 2005.
Now walk on the west side of the State House and look at its walls. Here you will see brass stars marking six Union cannonball hits on the State House during the bombardment before Sherman took the city. The large memorial nearby is the Palmetto Regiment Memorial, oldest monument on the grounds and commemorating the service and sacrifice of this regiment during the Mexican-American War.
Now head east to Assembly Street and find the grave of Capt. Swanson Lunsford. This is the only tomb on the grounds, the final resting place of this Revolutionary War hero, whose family once owned the very land on which he is buried. Continue north a short distance parallel to Assembly and find the Veterans Monument, newest addition to the grounds and a memorial to all South Carolina veterans, in peace or in war.
Progress to the extreme northwest corner of the State House grounds at Assembly and Gervais to find one of its most interesting markers, the Dr. J. Marion Sims Monument. The good doctor is widely considered the father of modern gynecology. The South Carolina native is not without controversy, however; some historians have concluded that he performed much of his research on female slaves against their will — and in some cases apparently, without anesthetic.
Walk east again parallel to Gervais. Just before the Confederate Monument, where you began your walking tour, are two important spots. The first is the statue of Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, populist governor of South Carolina in the 1890s and prime author of the supremacy of the Baptist Upstate over the Episcopalian Lowcountry. Yet another of the State House’s controversial, politically incorrect memorials, this statue in effect honors an avowed white supremacist who introduced the segregationist Jim Crow laws to the Palmetto State.
Nearby is a much more wholesome monument, the Washington Elm. This beautiful tree is a granddaughter of the elm tree in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under which George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775. It was awarded to the South Carolina Daughters of the American Revolution in 1947.
Speaking of our first president, we’ve saved the best for last: the imposing and impressive George Washington Statue at the capitol’s front steps. Sculpted of bronze on a granite base, the statue is Washington’s exact height (as best historians can figure), six feet, two inches tall. If you’re here after hours, you may notice joggers running up and down the front steps, Rocky-style.
© Jim Morekis from Moon South Carolina, 4th Edition