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At Charleston's Secession Ball, divided opinions on the spirit of S.C.

A guest arrives in period costume for the Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C.
A guest arrives in period costume for the Secession Ball in Charleston, S.C. (Richard Ellis/getty Images)
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John B. Hines, a wealthy Texas oilman and cattle rancher, helped, too. He sent a $5,000 sponsorship for the affair because he loves the Old South: "They created a society far and above anything else on Earth." As for the NAACP demonstrators outside, Hines said, their arguments are "nonsense. The NAACP's just hard up for a reason to bitch at people."

The central argument both inside and outside the auditorium is the same one that enlivened the Charleston mayor's news conference earlier in the day: the role of slavery in the decision to secede. A favorite citation of the crowd at the ball comes from Charles Dickens. "He said, 'The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states,' " said John Zebelean, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel from Baltimore who attended the ball. "It's all there! You can look it up."

Darby, the NAACP vice president, spent much of the day talking about documents drafted during the secession commission that mention slavery repeatedly and cite it as a prime motivating factor. But the point, he said, is not merely a matter of historical contention. Celebrating secession, he says, contributes to an atmosphere of inequality in present-day South Carolina, where fights over the quality of education and job opportunities for African Americans still simmer. Reminders of secession are everywhere. In Charleston, there's a Secessionville Road; in Beaufort, there's a Secession Golf Club.

Darby said that the day before the ball, he ran into a white man whose ancestor was one of the signers of the secession ordinance; the man was "distressed" about the ball and had no plans to attend. They got to talking about their bloodlines, and the man mentioned the name of the signer: Artemus Darby. In those days it was common for slaves to take the names of their masters. "I looked at him and said, 'Hello, cousin,' " Darby said.

Another ancestor of a secession ordinance signer was among the guests inside the Secession Ball. As he was leaving, David J. Rutledge - whose great-great-great-grandfather was the secession convention president played by McConnell - turned to a woman in a fur shawl and said: "You're going to be mad at me. . . . I believe it was about slavery."

Thomson, the tour guide, chimed in, parsing the debate. "Forgive me, I would say it's more about antislavery," he said. "People in the North who didn't own slaves getting involved."

Rutledge wasn't budging, despite the disapproving glances.

Hoop skirts and frock coats funneled past him toward the exits, disappearing from view as they summited the staircase. When Rutledge's great-great-great-grandfather signed the secession ordinance, there was an overflow crowd of more than 3,000 on hand to watch. When it came time to celebrate the signing's sesquicentennial, about 300 people came. Most of the seats in an auditorium that holds more than 2,700 were empty.

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