But the last thing the Fultons expected was to find themselves angrily marching out of the event after being there for only 20 minutes.
The cause of their sudden exit? West declaring onstage that famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who has been called “the Moses of her people,” “never actually freed the slaves.”
“She just had the slaves go work for other white people,” West said. Loud groans and unintelligible murmuring immediately erupted from the large crowd of several hundred people who had gathered at the Exquis Event Center. “Come on, man,” a voice shouted out.
Meanwhile, the Fulton sisters, who are black, decided they had seen enough. In a now-viral video capturing West’s comment, Toni Fulton made her exasperation with the Grammy Award-winning artist clear in a single statement. “Yo, we leavin’ right now,” she could be heard saying in the background of the short clip as it abruptly cut off.
“We’re young, black women and there weren’t a lot of us in the room,” Fulton, 30, told The Washington Post. “We know better than to be in a space that we’re not uplifted in. While he was saying a lot of crazy things that didn’t directly offend us, that was offensive and it wasn’t appropriate for us to be there anymore.”
West, who is trying to get on the ballot in South Carolina, spoke for about an hour during Sunday’s freewheeling campaign rally, bouncing between a variety of subjects ranging from abortion and religion to international trade. But his claim about Tubman swiftly became the most-talked-about moment from the event. Video clips circulated widely online, prompting critics and historians to share facts about Tubman’s storied legacy and urge West, who faced intense backlash in 2018 for saying 400 years of African American enslavement sounded “like a choice,” to educate himself.
By early Monday, “Kanye” and Tubman’s name were still top trending terms on Twitter as social media exploded with reactions to his remarks, which one prominent Tubman scholar decried as “completely irrational” in an interview with The Washington Post.
“There’s something about that little, petite, black woman, who did so much, that seems to bother him,” said Kate Clifford Larson, author of the 2003 biography “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero.” Larson noted that West has referenced the abolitionist critically in past years.
“She put up with a lot of abuse her whole life,” Larson said of Tubman. “She’s getting the attention and accolades that she deserves. Why tear her down now? It’s just ridiculous.”
Representatives for West did not respond to requests for comment late Sunday.
The renewed backlash over West’s interpretation of history comes as he is attempting to collect the 10,000 signatures needed by noon Monday to appear on the South Carolina ballot, the Associated Press reported. West, 43, announced July 4 on Twitter that he was mounting a long-shot bid for the presidency, even though the deadline to get his name on ballots in several states had already passed. Still, West recently managed to qualify for the general election ballot in Oklahoma — and political experts have warned that it would be a mistake to ignore the hitmaker, citing the influence third-party candidates have had on past elections, The Post’s Helena Andrews-Dyer reported.
“People want to dismiss the irrational,” pollster Terrance Woodbury told Andrews-Dyer. “It sounded irrational five years [ago] that Donald Trump would be president. It’s only crazy until someone pulls it off.”
For Fulton, West’s fledgling presidential run bears marked similarities to President Trump’s 2016 campaign, and the Columbia, S.C., native told The Post on Sunday that she and her sister, both Democrats, felt the North Charleston rally “just seemed like a moment that we shouldn’t miss.”
“She sent a text that said, ‘Hey, do you want to see the circus?’” Fulton said.
It didn’t take Fulton long to determine that West’s rally wouldn’t be like any other standard campaign event. First, she said she noticed that the crowd was mostly young people and “sneakerheads,” sporting their distinctive pricey footwear, while other attendees arrived wearing concert T-shirts.
Perhaps, she thought, West would perform a few of his songs during his first official introduction as a presidential candidate. She anticipated that the event, albeit not a typical rally, would “introduce the world to the professional, presidential side of Kanye West.”
Instead, the rapper strode onstage a few minutes after 5 p.m. wearing a protective vest that had “SECURITY” emblazoned across the front. “2020” was shaved into his head.
“In this Black Lives Matter spirit, to have a militarized outfit was, I don’t know, read the room,” said Fulton, noting the protests over racism and police brutality that have consumed the nation for weeks. “It was weird.”
And things only proceeded to get weirder, according to live-streamed footage of the event.
Speaking without a microphone, West brought members of the crowd onstage, appearing to use their thoughts on current events to drive the conversation. He addressed his past support of Trump and his days of wearing a Make America Great Again hat, acknowledging that it was a “very, very hurtful moment” for fans. West went on to argue that “Democrats ain’t did s--- for blacks” and disputed criticism that his candidacy would split black votes, calling the idea “the most racist thing that’s ever been said out loud.”
Then, he appeared to abruptly shift gears to Tubman. Ignoring the crowd’s audible reaction to his comments about Tubman’s efforts to free enslaved people, West segued into criticizing economic equality.
“National Basketball Association is not owned by any blacks. Universal Music is not owned by any blacks,” he said. “Any celebrity that you see talking is not the real power because the real power … you don’t see them.”
But at that point, Fulton and her sister were already headed for the door.
“We just left,” she said. “We didn’t want to be there any longer because it’s a joke. That’s what it felt like.”
She described West’s comments as an attempt to “totally take away everything that Harriet Tubman did” for African Americans, adding, “I don’t even think I’ve heard white people say that.”
On social media, the brief remark was met with similar criticism led by prominent black voices and historians.
“You, Mr. West are a jerk and not worthy of uttering Tubman’s name,” Larson, the Tubman scholar, tweeted. “You have not freed anyone.”
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump wrote in a tweet addressed to West that “a Black history textbook is in the mail.”
“Read it, then learn to respect Harriet Tubman’s legacy,” Crump added.
In a statement to The Post, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a Rutgers University professor who specializes in African American women’s history, echoed calls for West to become better educated.
“Kanye West is in desperate need of a crash course in American History. His comments were erroneous and serve as a pathetic attempt to stimulate public attention,” Dunbar said, calling Tubman a “hero.”
Regarded as “the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad’s ‘conductors,’” Tubman made more than a dozen trips to the South over the course of a decade, escorting hundreds of enslaved people to freedom, according to PBS. During the Civil War, Tubman worked as a nurse and a scout for the Union, and became the first woman to lead an armed and successful military attack at the time, Dunbar told The Post. Later in her life, Tubman was also an advocate for women’s suffrage.
There is now an ongoing effort to get Tubman on the $20 bill, in place of former president Andrew Jackson, who was an enslaver.
“Tubman was one of the most important social justice activists in our nation’s history and West’s words will never erase this fact,” Dunbar said. “He’s a distraction and I suggest we move along and pay him no mind.”
But though Brenda E. Stevenson, a professor of history and African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, agreed that West’s comments were “woefully uninformed,” she stressed that his influence should not be entirely discounted.
“He’s a celebrity and he has a great following of young people in particular,” Stevenson told The Post. “Some may be as uninformed as he is and believe that what he says is true, so that’s what’s disturbing to me.
“This country has a real problem with knowing African American history,” she continued. “So when you have someone who has a great following say something that really is not based in fact, then it really distorts the history even more.”
Instead, she urged people to do their own research.
“Question what you read on social media. Question it deeply,” she said, “All the information is available to us, literally at our fingertips. All you have to do is Google Harriet Tubman, you will see.”