CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina has put up a portrait of a Reconstruction-era Black lawmaker in the state Senate chamber — part of an effort to recognize a broader array of historical figures in a place that once flew the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse.
Some lawmakers who worked for the recognition of the late Sen. Stephen Atkins Swails said they are unhappy the painting went up without a ceremony, The State reported.
“I think it deserves more recognition than a last-minute, knee-jerk email from the president of the Senate under the cloak of darkness,” said Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston.
The newspaper reported that after an email about the portrait was sent to senators and staff Thursday, one white state senator hit “reply all” with a comment about Swails’ complexion.
“That sure is the whitest looking black guy I’ve ever seen,” Republican Sen. Sandy Senn of Charleston wrote, adding an emoji of a person shrugging. “Anyway, thanks for sharing!”
Reached Friday, Senn told The State she could not believe her response had become “this big news story.”
“I really cannot understand why one of my Senate colleagues would think my observation, which was spot-on, was anything inappropriate or sinister because it wasn’t,” Senn said.
Kimpson said he didn’t want to discuss Senn’s comments.
“I think it distracts from the historic significance of this portrait,” Kimpson said. “There ought to be a front-page story about Sgt. Swails, not these sideshow comments.”
Swails was born in Pennsylvania to a Black father and a white mother in 1832 and went to South Carolina in the military. He stormed Fort Wagner on Morris Island as part of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the nation’s first Black fighting units whose story was immortalized in the film “Glory.” In 1865, he became the first commissioned Black officer in the Union Army. After military service, Swails stayed in South Carolina to work for the Freedman’s Bureau.
He was also a businessman, newspaper editor and lawyer. He served in the South Carolina Senate from 1868 to 1878, becoming its first Black president pro tempore.
In a 2008 resolution, state lawmakers said Swails provided leadership “during the turbulent years of the Reconstruction period, in which the struggle for civil rights began in earnest.” Their resolution sought to honor Swails with a portrait in the Senate chamber, which has rows of pictures, most depicting white men.