CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - History buffs celebrated the long-anticipated discovery of what appears to be a time capsule buried under the base of the monument to John C. Calhoun in downtown Charleston.
News of the discovery came Saturday morning, but the existence of the time capsule has been talked about for generations.
Charleston Director of Parks Jason Kronsberg said in October that crews expected to find one as they cleared the area where the Calhoun statue once stood.
An old Post and Courier article dating back nearly a century ago mentioned it.
The Ladies Calhoun Monument Association reportedly placed the capsule, in the form of the monument base’s original cornerstone, on June 28, 1858, Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler said back in October.
But once crews determine if the discovery actually is a time capsule, the focus turns to its contents.
How valuable the contents are may well depend on how much you appreciate history.
“The value of the things that were placed in there in the 19th century are probably not monetarily of value,” Butler said last fall.
But they are of value, he said, to the memory of the man memorialized in the monument.
Born in 1782 in Abbeville, Calhoun gained prominence in 1807 when he organized a town meeting to protest the British attack on the American ship Chesapeake off the Virginia coast. Listeners of his impassioned speech took notice of him and they would elect Calhoun to the South Carolina legislature.
In 1810, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as a Congressman until President James Monroe offered him an appointment as Secretary of War in 1817.
Calhoun became the nation’s seventh vice president in 1825 under President John Quincy Adams. He remained in that role until 1832, when he was elected as a U.S. senator, where he remained until 1843, for a brief term as Secretary of State under President John Tyler.
When Tyler’s presidency ended, Calhoun returned to the Senate in 1845 and stayed there until his death in 1850, 11 years before the start of the Civil War.
While his role as a prominent political figure in early U.S. history couldn’t be disputed, his position as a staunch supporter of slavery was a sore spot.
There had been numerous calls for the statue’s removal from Marion Square over the years.
But in May of last year, George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis Police custody prompted protests nationwide. The protests sparked new calls for racial justice and calls for the removal of monuments dedicated to Confederate or pro-slavery figures.
Attention returned to the Calhoun statue. Civil rights groups called for the statue’s removal as well as the repeal of the state’s Heritage Act. The National Action Network, the Charleston chapter of the NAACP and some members of the South Carolina General Assembly pushed for the statue’s removal at a news conference held at the base of the statue.
The Heritage Act is a law that protects some state monuments, markers or memorials from being removed without legislative approval. It requires a two-third’s vote of the state legislature.
The National Action Network said the law was adopted in 2000 to protect “the Confederate Battle Flag and other symbols and monuments of hate.”
Democratic Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who represents District 42 in Charleston and Dorchester Counties, said repealing the Heritage Act “removes the impediment to local governments for removing statues and the impediment for renaming buildings and streets.”
But Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said the Heritage Act didn’t cover the Calhoun statue since the statue belongs to the city and is located on grounds owned by a private party.
By late June, crews began work to remove the Calhoun statue, which had loomed over Marion Square from atop a 100-foot monument since 1896.
Tecklenburg said Saturday crews did “an incredible job of meticulously taking apart the base” in the hopes of making the discovery.
The city brought in Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting to assist with the search and the cleanup of the site.
“We were chipping away the [outer] material, and then the next thing we did, we chipped a little piece of marble off and then it was like, ‘Now we have what we are looking for,’” Senior Archeologist Eric Poplin said. “Really there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether this corner stone even still exist and so it’s just fascinating.”
There was originally an iron cannonball, various tin boxes that contain paper and a lock of Calhoun’s hair, he said. There may also be textiles and a banner carried in Calhoun’s funeral procession.
“We don’t know what the condition of the materials are inside,” Poplin said.
The challenge is to protect those artifacts, and any others that may have been placed there, as they open its outer container.
“All of those materials will react differently once this thing is opened up to the air,” Poplin said.
So crews will move the capsule to a “controlled environment” where they will open it with as little damage as possible to its contents.
While Tecklenburg said Calhoun’s views have been shunned, any artifacts should be protected.
“This is all appropriate, I believe, to preserve the history and be able to tell the stories for generations to come,” he said.
Work to open the time capsule is expected to begin on Monday. Crews have not specified where that will take place or how soon the contents will be revealed.