Celebration of epochal 1868 constitutional convention gains support

Beyond Catfish Row's call last week for the Charleston community to mount a 150th anniversary celebration of the constitutional convention of 1868 and its pioneering achievements in granting equal rights is gaining serious traction.

Francis L. Cardozo, who was an instrumental figure in the rights-granting achievements of the 1868 state constitutional convention and held major elected offices in the new state government before he was framed by white-supremacist opponents and convicted of corruption. 

Francis L. Cardozo, who was an instrumental figure in the rights-granting achievements of the 1868 state constitutional convention and held major elected offices in the new state government before he was framed by white-supremacist opponents and convicted of corruption. 

The National Park Service's coordinator for its "Reconstructing Reconstruction" initiative, Michael Allen, told us: "I am supportive of your description of the project." Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott says: "Count us in." Charleston College historian Dr. Tammy Ingram says: "I think this would be great for Charleston on the heels of the Civil War sesquicentennial celebration. And I think there would be more support for this locally than you might think."  Longtime state civil right leader Charles Traynor (Bud) Ferillo Jr., author and director of the documentary "Corridor of Shame: the Neglect of South Carolina's Rural Schools" (2005), is another supporter.

Dr. W. Lewis Burke of the University of South Caroline Law School, who has done pioneering published research discrediting the white-supremacist-led corruption conviction of convention leader and free black Francis L. Cardozo of Charleston, says he would like to talk at the possible celebration about Cardozo's frame-up and how it destroyed his bright career in state government during Reconstruction.

The former state secretary and treasurer was pardoned two years after his conviction, but, unable to find work in the Capitol or Charleston, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in a low level of  the U.S. Treasury Department and later became a high school teacher in the District. Francis Cardozo Senior High School in the District is named after him.

Before the constitutional convention launched his political career, Cardozo was active in the founding of the Avery Normal School, the first accredited school for free blacks in Charleston. He succeeded his brother, Thomas, to become the school's second principal, and led the effort to build its permanent structure, at 125 Bull St.  The school became part of the segregated Charleston County school system in 1947, but the county school board closed it for financial reasons in 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public schools. Today it is the headquarters of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, which is part of the College of Charleston.

The timing for a 150th anniversary celebration in Charleston would be in early 2018 to mark the 53 days of the convention, which was held from Jan. 14 to March 17, 1868, in the old Charleston Club House at 71 Meeting St. The Club House was demolished after it was ruined in the earthquake of 1886. The only remnant surviving today is its courtyard and driveway, which are adjacent to the J. Waties Waring Judicial Center at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.

The National Park Service's year-long "Reconstructing Reonstruction"  project aims to survey events and places in the Southeastern states that were significant in the Reconstruction era.  The NPS would landmark the locations of events that are singled out. While the state constitutional convention held in Charleston is no longer identified with a physical structure, it apparently could still be land-marked in the surviving courtyard. It may be possible to locate exhibition space in the adjacent J. Waties Waring Judicial Center. 

Beyond Catfish Row expects to be meeting this week with NPS's Michael Allen on how the Park Service might help the community put on a 150th celebration of the constitutional convention, whose achievements include granting unconditional suffrage to black males and establishing the first publicly supported statewide school system -- work in which Cardozo played a major role.

TOM GRUBISICH