Orangeburg, named for William IV, Prince of Orange, was first settled by Europeans in 1704 when the Indian trader, George Sterling, set up a post there. In 1735, a colony of 200 Swiss, German, and Dutch immigrants formed a community near the banks of the North Edisto River. The site was attractive because of the fertile soil and the abundance of wildlife, and the river provided an outlet to the port of Charleston. The town soon became a well-established and successful colony, composed chiefly of small independent farms. However, after the American Revolution, large-scale cotton plantations developed in Orangeburg County with the invention of the cotton gin for mass-producing cotton.
Labor was provided by slaves.
In the 1860s, hundreds of young men from Orangeburg enlisted in the war and fought bravely to defend their families, homes, and the right to self-government.
Of course, they were also fighting for the right to continue to profit off the backs of enslaved African labor. Many of these young men gave their lives in acts of courage. Orangeburg itself avoided much direct conflict during the course of the war, but in the end, it was not spared. In February 1865, as General Sherman marched from Savannah to Columbia, he occupied Orangeburg. After defeating the meager Confederate forces and crossing the Edisto River, he burned and plundered the city.
In the years following the Civil War, emancipated slaves, who made up the majority of the population, were now able to gain an education. Orangeburg became a focal point for black hope as two black colleges were founded in the city. But it was not long before African-American voting rights were squelched and social justice was denied by the implementation of Jim Crow laws. Life became increasingly difficult for black citizens in Orangeburg throughout the 20th century.
By the 1960s, Orangeburg had become a major center of Civil Rights activities involving students from both Claflin and South Carolina State College. Hundreds of young men and women fought non-violently to defend their families, homes, and the right to self-government. On February 8, 1968, after two days of protests against an illegally segregated bowling alley, violence broke out as police forced black students back to the campus of South Carolina State. That cold night, with heightened tensions in the air, the Highway Patrol officers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed students. In the shooting that lasted 8-15 long seconds, buckshot blasts took the lives of three young men, Samuel Hammond, Henry Smith, and Delano Middleton, and wounded 28 others in what became known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.”
There are two monuments in Orangeburg, and they anchor the city’s downtown business district. The first was constructed in 1893 as members of the community sought to remember and honor the fallen white sons of the Civil War. The second monument was constructed in 1969 as members of the community sought to remember and honor the fallen black sons of the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, both monuments were raised to mark the strength and pride of an oppressed and hurting people. It is ironic because the oppressed white Southerners were also the ones doing the oppressing.
Neither side understands or appreciates the wounds of the other. This lack of empathy, understanding, and forgiveness has fueled ongoing community disintegration. In particular, the white community’s failure to embrace the tragedy of the Orangeburg Massacre, stalls progress. Today, the resounding comment from white members of the community is this: “Why can’t we just leave that in the past and move on?” Of course, black members of the community likewise do not understand the white community’s endearment for the memorial to the Confederate Dead. It is asking much more of the black community to empathize with the experience of the white oppressors and the mere suggestion of such is likely offensive. But perhaps it is a way forward. Maybe these markers of contention could become markers of unity.
Rather than standing at opposite ends of Russell Street clinging to our own black or white monuments every year, let us make the walk to stand in solidarity with our neighbors. This is the walk of Calvary. It is the walk Jesus Christ made when he went down to the Roman cross to give up his life for us all. Jesus was oppressed so that oppressors could be forgiven. The Son of God was beaten so that the beaten could have liberty. The cross is a monument to the grace of God and the courage and sacrifice of Jesus our Savior. At the foot of the cross, we are all equal. By faith in Him, we can approach one another with humility and without fear.