A portrait of a Black Reconstruction Era State Senator and Civil War hero remained in a Statehouse closet for 13 years before finally being on display Thursday in the Senate Chamber without public ceremony.
From the bloody sands of Morris Island during the Union Army assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, Stephen Atkins Swails became the first black officer in the United States Army. After the war, Swails rose to prominence as a Williamsburg County businessman, newspaper editor, lawyer, and the first black man to be pro tempore president of the Senate. He served in the State Senate from 1868 to 1878.
SC Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, told the Charleston City Paper that the portrait was hung in a private ceremony after the newspaper asked where it was. Malloy said he spoke to Senate Speaker Harvey S. Peeler, R-Cherokee, who he said “is a friend and he is aware of these issues.” He declined to detail his conversation with Peeler.
Meanwhile Thursday, the specter of the race reared its head when SC Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, commented on Swails’ fair complexion. In an email with a ‘what’s new’ emoji that she sent to Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett and all senators in the state, she wrote: “He’s definitely the whitest black I have ever seen. ‘ve never seen ”.
In an interview today, Senn said she didn’t consider the comment an affront to Swails, but she believed she had been sent a photo of the wrong portrait.
“I think it has all been disproportionately disproportionate,” she said. “I never, ever intended to offend this man in any way. I think good will come out of it. More attention will be paid to its important and extraordinary history. Nothing I said was derogatory to him. The good news is that even if it comes at my expense, this gentleman will get some recognition late. “
In an interview with the City paper, Malloy said, “I have no words to respond to comments like that.”
The movement for recognition
Malloy was a junior senator in 2008 when he and three senior lawmakers co-sponsored a “momentary” resolution to display Swails’ portrait. On June 4, 2008, it was passed by the Senate with unanimous consent. Because he was not the main sponsor, the action to hang the portrait fell through the cracks, Malloy said. The main sponsor at the time was Acting Pro President Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and the other co-sponsors were future GOP Lieutenant Governor Yancey McGill of Kingstree and Kay Patterson, D-Richland.
“I can’t wait to go there to see it,” Malloy said. The color portrait is now one of other Black Senators, the late I. DeQuincy Newman of Columbia, the late Senator Clementa C. Pinckney of Charleston and former Senator John W. Matthews Jr. of Orangeburg. “Now we have President Pro Tempore Swails,” he added.
In a Facebook post, Malloy said the portrait was “in the place of honor among many other distinguished South Carolinians.” In an interview, he said: “We are fortunate to look at the face of greatness and see it look back at us… to let us know that a person of color has a leadership position in the Senate.”
Where’s the ceremony, asks Kimpson
Malloy’s response to the long-awaited suspension of Swails’ portrait has been more low-key than that of Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston.
“I think the hanging of this portrait deserves more ceremony than a last minute email from the Speaker of the Senate notifying the body that the piece would be hung under the cloak of darkness,” Kimpson said today .
He added that while there had not been a recent investigation of the City paper on why the portrait has not been hung for 13 years, “this portrait would still be sitting in a closet.” … At a minimum, those who commissioned and contributed to the portrait should have received prior notification. We will work to honor Lieutenant Swails and educate children across the state of his contribution to the history of the Civil War.
Those who commissioned the portrait were just as surprised as Kimpson that it was exhibited unceremoniously and without warning.
Jannie Harriot, a retired Hartsville educator, said, “So how did it hang? He’s been in a closet the whole time and now they’ve decided to hang him? “
When told the portrait was on a Senate wall, Kingstree’s attorney Billy Jenkinson said, “You’re kidding!” When asked why he thought it had taken so long, Jenkinson, who is white: replied, “Just a few white supremacists out there in Colombia” who didn’t want to honor Swails.
In 2006, Harriot and Jenkinson co-chaired the African American Historical Alliance, a private group that commissioned the late Michael Del Priore to paint the portrait of Swails. He had made six other portraits of SC lawmakers which are displayed in the Senate and House chambers. From 1868 to 1878, Swails represented Williamsburg County in the Senate, including three terms as president pro tempore
Swails served despite sectarianism in the United States Army and widespread political violence after the Civil War. After the war, he built a diverse coalition of white Democrats and black Republicans who elected him mayor of Kingstree and then to the Senate. In the legislature, Swails introduced bills that benefited former slaves. But when the backlash from Reconstruction reached a critical point, Swails, the editor of the Williamsburg Republican, was forced to flee the state or be killed. He retired to his native Pennsylvania.
New book describes how Swails got to South Carolina
In April 1863 Swails enlisted for a three-year period with the all-volunteer unit of black soldiers who made up the 54e Massachusetts Regiment. The unit is portrayed in the movie “Glory” for its assault on Fort Wagner. Although he enlisted as a private, Swails was later appointed as the Army’s first black officer. He died in 1900 at the age of 68. He is buried in the Humane and Friendly Society cemetery in Charleston, near Magnolia cemetery.
Joseph McGill, a Kingstree native and Civil War reenactor who lives near Charleston, said: “I didn’t think it would have taken so long for the Swails portrait to reach its intended destination, but I’m not surprised. How symbolic that a man who escaped a lynching is now hanged in the Statehouse. “
Dozens of biographies tout the achievements of Civil War generals and great political figures, but the lives of nearly 200,000 black soldiers, like Swails, who volunteer to fight in the Civil War against slavery, are largely gone unnoticed. The life of Swails is documented in Gordon C. Rhea’s new book “Black Freedom Fighter: In the Civil War and Reconstruction”. It is expected to be published in November by Louisiana State University Press.
Rhea, a resident of Mount Pleasant, said it was “about time” to hang Swails’ portrait. “She was an extraordinarily important person. To ignore it is to ignore a major political figure in South Carolina. “