In South Carolina, a state with a painful legacy of racism, a white lawmaker on Thursday fired off an email that casually challenged the complexion of a Black Reconstruction-era lawmaker, whose portrait now hangs in a place of honor inside the State House.
And, thanks to the modern-day perils of the reply-all email, now all 46 of South Carolina’s state senators, their staff and the senate clerk, know what Charleston Republican Sandy Senn thought when she saw the portrait of Stephen Atkins Swails.
“That sure is the whitest looking black guy I’ve ever seen,” the senator from Charleston wrote in a message that included an emoji symbol of a person shrugging.
“Anyway,” she continued, “thanks for sharing!”
The message from Senn was sent at 4 p.m. Thursday in response to an email announcing that the portrait of Swails had joined the gallery in the Senate chambers.
Reached for comment Friday morning, an exasperated Senn said she could not believe her response had become “this big news story.” She then urged a reporter to review the portrait of Swails before writing.
“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 when reached by phone. “I think this is just so overblown.”
Senn’s 15-word reply, which drew audible sighs and a quiet ire from some state senators and their staffers, raises questions about how far South Carolina has really come in its understanding of racial sensitivity in the years after lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds.
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, bemoaned being asked about Senn’s comments.
“I don’t want to spend time dignifying these remarks because I think it distracts from the historic significance of this portrait. There ought to be a front page story about Sgt. Swails not these sideshow comments,” Kimpson said.
Instead, Kimpson said, his frustrations lay elsewhere: With the way in which the portrait was unceremoniously unveiled.
“I think it deserves more recognition than a last-minute, knee-jerk email from the president of the Senate under the cloak of darkness,” Kimpson said.
Swails was born in Pennsylvania to a Black father and a white mother in 1832, and made his way to South Carolina first as a military man.
He stormed Fort Wagner on Morris Island as a member of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the nation’s first Black fighting units whose story would later be immortalized in the film “Glory.”
In 1865, he became the first commissioned African American officer in the Union Army. After his military service, Swails stayed in the Palmetto State, where he worked for the Freedman’s Bureau to help newly freed slaves in the South.
He also worked as a businessman, newspaper editor, lawyer and later became the first Black man to serve as the president pro tempore of the state Senate. His years in the senate spanned a decade, from 1868-1878.
Swails is buried in Charleston.
Centuries later, 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 chambers, where rows of pictures, most of them depicting white men, look down on state senators during the legislative session.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, was one of the lawmakers who pushed to see Swails honored in 2008.
“Sen. Swails has now found his rightful place,” Malloy said.
But it took 13 years to get there, a frustration shared by Malloy, Kimspon and Senn.
The initial email from Jeff Gossett, the clerk of the Senate, acknowledged the delay. It included a photo of the portrait, along with biographical information about Swails and an article from NPR.
“The fundraising, commissioning of an artist, and final completion delayed delivery of the portrait for a number of years. Unfortunately, the portrait was not formally raised in the Senate,” Gossett wrote. “Today, however, the portrait of Stephen A. Swails joined our gallery in the Senate Chamber.”
A request for comment from Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee was not immediately returned.
Kimpson said Swails deserved better, and deserved a proper public unveiling.
With the addition of his portrait, Swails has now joined other Black senators who are honored there: Isaiah DeQuincy Newman of Columbia, the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the 2015 mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, and John Matthews of Orangeburg, who was the longest-serving Black lawmaker before he retired last year.
But when asked about Senn’s all-reply response to the Swails portrait, Malloy said, “Those types of comments are not worthy of a response.”
In an interview about her email, Senn doubled down on her comments, saying she thought a mistake had been made.
“I thought (Gossett) attached the wrong image,” Senn said, adding that she had seen photos and images that appeared to depict Swails with darker hair and skin than the portrait.
She continued, “Again my comments were not sinister and I just can’t believe that a senate colleague would have nothing better to do than make this thing into a big news story. And I do hope it doesn’t detract from this guy’s history but what I think will happen is it will probably shed light on the history.”
“Therefore,” Senn concluded, “it’s something positive.”