Charleston’s Calhoun Statues, Part I
By Peg Eastman
The Mills Bust of John C. Calhoun. Image credit Kathleen Buckley.
As 2021 ramps up, much has changed in Charleston, but not on Broad Street, which has retained a comfortable sameness. Particularly noteworthy is City Hall, which houses a priceless visual history of the city’s development. This article highlights part of their collection and is a continuation of Broad Street’s fascinating history.
In 2019, the Mercury published a column about John C. Calhoun’s state funeral and an article about Clark Mills in which a chance encounter with a phrenologist caused him to change careers and become a sculptor. Mills started his new career in a Broad Street studio not far from City Hall. One of his early works was a marble bust of Calhoun, which the city of Charleston purchased in 1846.
Mills gained national recognition for his statue of Andrew Jackson now standing in Lafayette Square across from the White House. It was the first equestrian statue in the United States and the first bronze sculpture made by an American artist. With Jackson astride a mount rearing up on its hind legs, it is considered an engineering marvel to this day. Mills went on to create a mounted statue of George Washington and a life mask of Abraham Lincoln made just 60 days before his assassination. And his Bladensburg, Maryland, foundry cast Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom that now crowns the U.S. Capitol dome.
In Charleston, the Mills bust of Calhoun sat out the war in City Hall but disappeared during the Reconstruction era. Imagine City Council’s surprise in 1931 when 82-year-old Dr. Thomas Ezekiel Miller contacted them with an amazing story. Miller was well known in Charleston. Of mixed race, he was famous for his civil rights advocacy for black Americans. His biography is unusual, and thanks to his serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, much of his life story has been preserved in the nation’s official records.
Miller was born in Ferrebeeville, South Carolina, in 1849. Historians Eric Foner and Stephen Middleton found that his mother was a fair-skinned, mixed-race daughter of Judge Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his father was a wealthy young white man whose family rejected his relationship and forced their son to give up the illegitimate child for adoption.
The adoptive parents, Richard and Mary Ferrebee Miller, had been freed about 1850. The Miller family moved to Charleston in 1851, and Thomas attended schools for free black children. After his mother died, the youth supported himself by selling Mercury newspapers at hotels.
During the war he delivered newspapers on the Charleston-Savannah railroad. When the Confederate Army seized the railroads, he was conscripted as a conductor. The train was later captured by Union forces, and before being released, Miller was imprisoned for two weeks in the swamp stockade near Savannah, Georgia. After the war Miller went north with the N.Y. 24th Negro Regiment to Harts Island, New York, and from there to Hudson, where he finished his education and earned a scholarship to Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
After finishing his education in 1872, Miller returned to S.C. and won his first elective office as a school commissioner in Beaufort. He went on to study law at the newly integrated University of South Carolina and was admitted to the bar in 1875.
Armed with a law degree, Miller returned to Beaufort and became a prominent member of the Republican Party. He was elected to the state House of Representatives and served one year before entering the U.S. House of Representatives race for the seat of Robert Smalls, the slave who had become a Northern hero when he escaped Confederate Charleston on the Planter during the war.
Thomas Ezekiel Miller. Image in the public domain.
Miller lost to the Democratic candidate and contested the election, claiming that numerous registered black voters had been prohibited from voting. Through a lot of political machinations, he was finally seated near the end of the term. According to the 1891 Congressional Record, Miller supported the Federal Elections Bill, which endeavored to protect black voting rights that had been blocked by poll taxes and literacy tests. In an impassioned speech to the House, he said, “I am in part the representative … of those whose rights are denied; of those who are slandered by the press … and I deem it my supreme duty to raise my voice, though feebly, in their defense.”
Although Miller failed to be re-elected to the 52nd Congress, he was elected to the state House of Representatives for a single term in 1894 and served as a delegate to the 1895 state constitutional convention, which attempted to change voter registration rules to prevent black citizens from voting. He and five other black delegates refused to ratify the new constitution, but that convention merits another article.
But it was in education that Miller left his mark on South Carolina. After the constitutional convention, in exchange for promising to leave politics, Miller helped organize the Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina (now South Carolina State University) in 1896. The college had been established in 1872 as the South Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical Institute, a federal land-grant school, as part of Methodist-owned Claflin College in Orangeburg. It was separated from Claflin by state legislation in 1896. Miller remained president of the college until his forced resignation in 1911 by Gov. Coleman L. Blease, who did not believe in the education of black people.
In 1923, Miller left Charleston and moved with his wife, Anna, to Philadelphia. While in the North, he recognized Clark Mills’ Calhoun bust in the Washington, D.C., law office of Charleston-born Archibald Grimké. Grimké was the black half-brother of the famous Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, champions of abolition and women’s rights. He graduated from Harvard Law School, became a leader of the NAACP in Washington and eventually went into law practice with Gilbert Pillsbury, an abolitionist and educator who had served as mayor of Charleston during Reconstruction. Pillsbury carried away the Calhoun bust following his tenure as mayor and, after his term in office, took it to Washington with him. In a curious twist of fate, when Pillsbury died, Clark Mills’ marble bust passed to Archibald Grimké.
The Charleston City Council minutes from April 28, 1931, complete the narrative: “Desirous of restoring the relic to the people of Charleston, Grimké had requested him to return it to his native city, and Dr. Miller stated that in response to his promise and his responsibility, he was now discharging that trust. There were no strings … or any considerations involved, other than his desire to bring to his people one of their treasures … which had been taken from them.”
Miller returned to Charleston in 1934 and died there in 1938. His obituary in the Journal of Negro History described him as “one of the most useful men of his time.” His legacy was inscribed on his tombstone in the Brotherly Association Cemetery in Charleston: “I served God and all the people, loving the white man not less, but the Negro needed me most.”
Clark Mills died in 1883, and his legacy continued when his eldest son, Theodore Augustus Mills, a Charleston native, used his father’s life mask that had been made in 1846 to sculpt the official vice-presidential bust of Calhoun for the U.S. Senate.
Mills was honored posthumously during World War II when the United States liberty ship SS Clark Mills was named for him. His studio on Broad Street was assigned the National Historic Landmark designation on December 21, 1965, and was included in the National Register of Historic Places inventory in 1976 under the Clark Mills Studio, and as Stoney and Stoney Law Office. And today Clark Mills’ early work is again in its intended home, displayed beside the portrait of John C. Calhoun in the anteroom off City Council Chambers.
Part II of this narrative will appear in the next issue of the Mercury. My appreciation to Harlan Greene for introducing me to this fascinating story, and to Douglas Ewbank for his online article “Thomas E. Miller,” part of “Thomas E. Miller: A Life in Service to Civil Rights.” Also invaluable were “Charleston or Bust” in the April 2011 issue of Charleston magazine, the Art & History section of the United States Senate website, and the History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives website.
Anyone with an interesting Broad Street story for the Charleston Mercury is welcome to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.