Earlier this year we said that the monument-topplers would not just seek out slavers, antebellum anti-abolitionists, and Confederate soldiers, but soon expand their ire to any target of opportunity presenting itself at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We were thinking of figures like the Founding Fathers (and were right, for the record); perhaps that’s why we were taken by surprise to read the South Carolina Arts Commission’s decision to drop Elizabeth O’Neill Verner’s name from their highest honor.
Two-term Democratic governor and Clinton administration cabinet member Richard Riley added the famed 20th century artist’s name to the award in 1980, shortly after her death. Details on exactly how SCAC’s executive council and their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee came to their decision are few. They reported that a “... constituent alerted [SCAC’s director] to racially charged writings” this summer and … well, goodbye, Mrs. Verner.
The writings apparently came directly from her (successful, published) books, which leads us to wonder … had the folks at SCAC never read the most important books by the state’s most prominent female artist of the 20th century before this summer?
We don’t know. And surely it’s possible to find fault in the late Mrs. Verner. She was born here in 1883 and died more than four decades ago: Had her perspectives and writings concerning Charleston’s racial minorities been fully in line with today’s mores, we would not be discussing her name on an arts award, but rather her formal sainthood.
She was a woman, born into a cultural and religious minority, and was forced to support herself and her family after her husband’s death. Further, though the branches of her descendants have stretched out widely, the roots of her immediate family tree did not entwine with those of “Old Charleston” by a single hair. White she may have been, with all the legal and social standing that conferred upon her — but, in her time, all those things engendered discrimination and Verner was keenly aware of the privileges she did not enjoy, no matter her talents, for factors she could not control.
As one Boston University art historian said just recently, “In her art, her viewpoint towards the homes and gardens of elite Charlestonians was a shared one. Both she and Charleston’s black population stood outside the gate.”
Yes, her imagery of the city’s black population often blurred faces and, some say, depersonalized the subject; but so did her drawings of white Europeans when she was abroad. It is worth noting that she still captured them in enough detail that “... the flower women’s descendants later remarked on how much [her renderings] resembled their relatives.” In her era, “... she was not a mere reactionary who invoked the exaggerated visual vocabulary of the minstrel-based popular culture of the day. African Americans were, in the artist’s own words ‘an integral part of the beauty of Charleston’,” noted historian Stephanie Yuhl.
It’s easy to find evidence of her paternalistic streak towards the local flower women, but it should be noted that Verner was also their greatest advocate at a time they desperately needed an advocate. When, in 1944, the city attempted to move all flower vendors to the city market (viewing them as a disruption to public order) Verner fought back. Mustering all her political clout, she spoke up for her fellow businesswomen. And that is, indeed, how the relationship was viewed — at least according to accounts passed down through vendors’ families. They were, in the words of one local author and basket maker, all “women in business, doing what they could to help themselves and their families.”
And while the resulting “peace treaty” with the city left Verner in the paternalistic position of personally doling out vendor permits to the flower women — a role she described with regret as that of “policeman” — perhaps we should think about it with a more nuanced eye. Rather than let the police forcefully address the complaints leveled at the vendors — noise, litter, fighting, etc. — Verner convinced the city to turn that job over to a sympathetic civilian with no weapon, no arrest power, etc., adjudicate the matter.
That’s right — squint just right through your Progressive-Vision-Glasses and she’s a fierce feminist who successfully (on this matter, at least) abolished the police.
But, we suppose those oh-so-2020 specs weren’t available for the SCAC’s committees that gave Verner the ax. No, they examined her and they did not see one of our state’s greatest artists; nor an early and insightful historic preservationist; nor a single mother, educator and entrepreneur who helped make the other female artists and entrepreneurs in her life — white and black alike — successful, too … all they saw were her 40 and 80-year-old books, with objectionable passages in them.
The honor will now be called, simply, the “Governor’s Award.”
Please, no one tell the SCAC about some of the chaps who’ve been governor before, please. If Mrs. Verner was too much for them, imagine what they’d do if they learned of Ben Tillman or Coley Blease?