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Statehouse panel signals openness to change SC Confederate Relic Room’s controversial name

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Statehouse panel signals openness to change SC Confederate Relic Room’s controversial name

Feb 27, 2024 | 8:00 am ET
By Skylar Laird
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Statehouse panel signals openess to change SC Confederate Relic Room’s controversial name
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The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. More people visited the museum in the 2022-23 fiscal year than in the two decades since it moved to this spot in the historic Mills Building. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

COLUMBIA — A historic Civil War flag from the Charleston Battery seemed like a perfect fit for the state’s Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

But when the flag, used in the 1862 Battle of Secessionville, came up for auction, museum director Allen Roberson had to pass because the museum didn’t have the $40,000 it would cost. Roberson said the museum has had to turn away from many such items over the years over a lack of corporate donations due to the museum’s controversial name.

The state’s oldest military history museum has made quiet nudges on the issue for several years. Now, for the first time, a small group of lawmakers suggested they’d be open to changing the name that Roberson contends cost the museum untold amounts in donations and ticket sales.

A House budget panel this month told Roberson and the museum board to bring them a list of alternates.

Possible other names

  • South Carolina War Memorial Museum
  • Palmetto State Military History Museum
  • Museum of South Carolina Military History
  • South Carolina War Museum
  • Armed Forces Museum of South Carolina
  • The South Carolina Civil War & Military Museum

The process is likely to take years and there’s no guarantee it will go anywhere. But that acknowledgement from lawmakers was the most progress Roberson has made.

“I feel more optimistic than I ever have before,” Roberson told the SC Daily Gazette.

While about half the Confederate Relic Room’s artifacts come from the Civil War, the museum also has items dating back to the Revolutionary War and as recent as the Afghanistan War.

“Since you’ve expanded so much since the original intent, I think a change in name would be warranted,” Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla, told Roberson at a recent House budget meeting.

Under state law, changing building or monument names commemorating wars takes legislative approval. Whitmire acknowledged, while he would support a name change, it would likely prove contentious.

But the process has gotten slightly easier since the the museum commission first talked about it in 2019. The state Supreme Court in 2021 took out a stipulation in state law that such changes needed two-thirds of the state’s legislators to sign on. It now only requires a simple majority.

‘Lightning rod’

Lawmakers’ directive was not part of any legislation. The panel of two Republicans and two Democrats, chaired by Whitmire, simply asked Roberson to raise the idea to the museum’s commission and present examples of times the word “confederate” lost the museum money.

Statehouse panel signals openness to change SC Confederate Relic Room’s controversial name
Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum commission members R. Voight Shealy, left, and T. Leland Summers, right, discuss a potential museum name change during a meeting Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. The museum’s controversial name is costing it corporate donations and ticket sales revenues, museum director Allen Roberson said during the meeting. (Skylar Laird/SC Daily Gazette)

In the early 2000s, a higher-up for Michelin tires spent hours touring the museum and complimenting its collection. At the end of the day though, he told Roberson he would not donate.

A few years later, the museum director asked Sonoco packaging company for a contribution to conserve a flag used by Black troops in World War I. The museum had artifacts once owned by the company’s founder, James Lide Coker, Roberson said.

Still, the company declined.

The list goes on:

  • Budweiser of Columbia wouldn’t give.
  • Boeing refused to put the museum on its list of nonprofits to which it would match contributions.
  • Even a commissioner’s son, who worked at Raymond James Investment Banking, said there was just no way to convince his bosses to listen to a request.

All cited the Confederate Relic Room’s name as their reason, Roberson said.

The museum has found willing donors in the United Daughters of the Confederacy — the organization that founded it in 1896 — as well as Sons of Confederate Veterans and individual veterans. But those dollars only go so far.

The name has also put the museum’s accreditation status with the American Alliance of Museums in jeopardy. Losing that designation could mean losing credibility as a museum, Roberson said.

The word “confederate” also loses the museum ticket sales. The Relic Room is located within the S.C. State Museum building, but people pass it by. Roberson spoke of one woman who refused to enter while her husband toured, telling staff “I don’t want to see the racist museum.”

“The reference to the Confederacy is a lightning rod,” museum commissioner R. Voight Shealy said during a recent meeting. “We all know it.”

Statehouse panel signals openness to change SC Confederate Relic Room’s controversial name
COLUMBIA, SC – JULY 10: A crowd cheers as a South Carolina state police honor guard lowers the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds on July 10, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. Republican Governor Nikki Haley presided over the event after signing the historic legislation the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Center of controversy

In 2015, the museum found itself at the center of controversy as lawmakers reached a compromise to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds following the massacre of nine churchgoers by an avowed white supremacist at a historic Black church in Charleston.

The same law that took the flag down sent it to the Confederate Relic Room, with a vague mandate to display it properly. But no funding was ever supplied and in November 2018 the flag was put in a $1,400 viewing case among other historical state flags.

Attendance took a 20% hit in the wake of the contention.

Just as the museum began to recover, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 shuttered its doors. When a Black man, George Floyd, was killed by police later that year, debates nationwide about removing racially-charged monuments again raised questions about the name, Roberson said.

A 2022 Vietnam War exhibit brought record visitor numbers and relief to languishing attendance. But the museum also spent all the money it had saved to put up the display.

“We don’t have a cushion anymore,” Roberson told lawmakers.

Money matters

One member of the museum’s governing board argues military museums everywhere, not just those with “confederate” in their name, are struggling to raise money, particularly when it comes to those displaying artifacts from the Civil War.

As attendance booms at SC’s military history museum, director looks to future

Commissioner Sam Howell said before he’ll support it he wants indisputable proof that the change would aid fundraising, which he isn’t convinced is the case. It remains to be seen whether the commission as a whole would be in favor of changing the name.

For now, taxpayers fund much of the museum’s meager $1 million operating budget. This year Roberson is asking for another $100,000 for operations, $177,000 for a collection of artifacts and $213,000 for gallery renovations.

Extra dollars from corporate donations could allow him to do more, he said.

For instance, when curating the museum’s new Vietnam exhibit, Roberson came across an authentic AK-47 rifle used in the war. The price tag was $80,000 — steep for a single gun — but the museum couldn’t afford it regardless.

Plus, old fabrics can be finicky and a handful of the museum’s uniforms and flags could use some repairs and preservation.

“We constantly have needs here,” Roberson said.