Local group acts to put missing spotlight on 1868 constitutional convention

There's encouraging progress toward Charleston mounting a 150th anniversary celebration of the most significant but largely forgotten attempt to create racial equality in South Carolina.

The auspicious event was the state constitutional convention which took place in January-March 1868 at the now-gone Charleston Club House on lower Meeting Street.

‘One of the most incredible, hopeful and unbelievable experiments in the history of mankind.’

Preparing to telegraph his account of the convention's delegates adopting their new constitution on March 17, 1868, the reporter for the New York Herald described what he saw over 53 days as "one of the most incredible, hopeful and unbelievable experiments n the history of mankind." 

Today, recognition of the convention and what it enacted in human and civil rights is nearly invisible in Charleston's public history. But organizers of the 150th anniversary celebration are setting in motion a process to erect an official state historical marker of the convention at 71 Meeting St., in front of where the Charleston Club House stood before it was pulled down after it was irreparably damaged in the hurricane of 1886. The location is adjacent to the Waring Judicial Center at Meeting and Broad Streets.

Plans for the marker were on top of the agenda of the May 2 meeting of leaders of the Carolina Lowcountry Atlantic World (CLAW) program, which promotes public awareness of interconnections between the cultures, societies and ethnicities of the Lowcountry and the broader Atlantic World. CLAW, which is based at College of Charleston, is planning a 2018 conference that is being broadened to include the 1868 constitutional convention. 

The meeting focused on steps to give the convention more public attention through a prominently displayed marker that will be located on the edge of the Charleston Historic District, which attracts several million tourists and other visitors annually.

Organizers laid out a plan they said would produce a marker that could be unveiled at 71 Meeting St. in time for the CLAW conference, which will be held at its home, the College of Charleston.

The group at the May 2 meeting included Chairman Simon Lewis, one of the principals of CLAW and a professor in the English Department at CofC; Tim Condo, Manager of Preservation Initiatives of the Preservation Society of Charleston; Mary Battle, Public Historian of the Avery Research Center; Adam Domby of the  College of Charleston's History Department, who specializes in the Reconstruction era; Jon Hale, an education historian also at CofC; Edwin Breeden, a history doctoral candidate who helped get a marker commemorating the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon (see photo above of Breeden at unveiling of marker) at East Bay and Broad Streets, not far from where the constitutional convention was held; John White, Dean of Libraries at CofC; Bruce E. Baker, a professor in the School of History, Classics and Archeology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, whose research specialties include Reconstruction; and Tom Grubisich, editor of Beyond Catfish Row, which has been an advocate of greater recognition of the 1868 constitutional convention and its special but not popularly recognized place in the advancement of human and civil rights.

Also part of the conference-marker planning group is Michael Allen, an education specialist with the National Park Service who is helping to organize the Service's "Reconstructing Reconstruction" 150th anniversary commemoration of Reconstruction. 

Participants at the May 2 meeting discussed a "call for papers" on topics of the March 2018 CLAW conference, which will examine the impact of Reconstruction on the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World, especially on people of African descent in recognition of 2015-24 being the International Decade for People of African Descent.

The conference will address a number of themes including the expansion of enfranchisement generally, especially to African Americans, but also to women, and to unpropertied citizens, public education; women's rights; the gradual ending of slavery in the Atlantic World; and the impact of Reconstruction on the black-ruled republics of Haiti and Liberia.

Lewis said the conference will also look at promoting an examination of the numerous but largely undocumented and sometimes fraudulent accusations of corruption against mostly black federal, state and local officeholders during the Reconstruction era from 1868 to 1877. One of the few Reconstruction leaders to be charged and convicted was Francis L. Cardozo, the free black cleric, educator and Republican activist who was one of the leaders of the 1868 constitutional convention and later served as South Carolina secretary of state and state secretary of the treasury. How Cardozo, who was subsequently pardoned, was framed in his corruption trial proceedings, has been detailed in the South Carolina Law Review by W. Lewis Burke, a professor at the USC Law School. Burke supports a 150th anniversary celebration of the convention and told Beyond Catfish Row he would like to address such an event about the Cardozo case. Political and racial "conundrums abound." in the case, Burke wrote in his extensively researched SC Law Review article.

Anyone interested in participating in the expanded CLAW conference, where such conundrums might well be examined,  should contact Chairman Lewis, at LewisS@cofc.edu.

TOM GRUBISICH