The Museum and the Justice

Clarence Thomas' alleged ethical breach shouldn't cloud the importance of the Pin Point Museum

The Pin Point Heritage Museum was vaulted into the national spotlight last week after a New York Times investigative piece (“Friendship of Justice and Magnate Puts Focus on Ethics” by Mike McIntire) linked the museum to a series of potential ethical breaches by Pin Point’s most notable native son, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The multi–million dollar museum project had been anonymously funded by a close friend of Thomas’ — Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow — until being made public by the Times.

The liberal echo chamber (which has made considerable gains on its conservative counterpart over the past few years), seized on the story and splashed the museum across websites, blogs, television and print — the largest line item on a list of Crow’s expensive gifts to Thomas.

The verbiage changed the farther the story got from its source, growing more devious by the day. Within a week, the game of politically–motivated telephone had changed the “humble” or “quaint” museum into “a pet project.”

Justice Thomas, who initially “asked” or “discussed” the acquisition with Crow, began to “persuade” his wealthy patron, according to the published accounts who sought sensationalism as compensation for the failure of timeliness.

There are some serious ethical questions about Thomas. He failed to disclose his wife’s six–figure income from a conservative think tank (the Heritage Foundation) for several years, according to a report by the LA Times.

Crow gave $500,000 to Mrs. Thomas’ new Tea Party organization, Liberty Central, which opposes healthcare reform (an issue that will likely end up in front of the Supreme Court sooner or later), who also pays her a healthy salary.

There have also been “gifts” – free flights, vacations and other largess – that should have forced Thomas to recuse himself from the Citizens United decision that allowed corporations carte blanche on election spending.

But the museum is different.

Of the thousands of people who’ve perpetuated this story over the last two weeks, only McIntire appears to have set foot on the property of the former cannery (although he could have faked it and just sent a photographer — few would know the difference).

If more people experienced the space, understood its physicality within the context of its surroundings, they likely would have understood why its preservation is actually a good deed.

Say what you will about the Justice’s politics, his taste in women or his voting record. But what can’t be diminished is the accomplishment of making it from a humble beginning in Pin Point to a seat on the Supreme Court bench.

Regardless of any other potential missteps, mistakes or ethically dubious action, the museum isn’t about political favors, at least not in my opinion. If you talk to Algernon Varn III, it is impossible to walk away from the site without realizing its value.

Crow is a man with deep pockets who is, in the McIntire’s words, “well known for his keen devotion to history.”

Thomas is a man who saw an opportunity to do something good for the community that instilled so much of itself in him, even as he spent his life distancing himself from it.

In his article, McIntire acknowledges the historical significance of the site, but seems unimpressed that such motivation might be the sole motivator in this case. He lumps it in with the other gifts that sought to buy influence, like nearly $200,000 he spent getting Thomas’ name on a library wing here.

While the Varn and Sons may not be the Low House or the Telfair, it does represent something historically significant. It was the economic heart of a small town founded after a hurricane pushed a Gullah community off of Ossabaw Island in 1893.

The building is unique even among other Southeastern oyster factories because of its architectural design, which used gravity to feed oysters being unloaded off boats directly to shuckers.

Above all else, it is a very real part of the area’s quickly vanishing ties to the ocean as an economic driver rather than a tourist attraction. The site was on the verge of being lost forever.

“Pieces of it were falling off and crumbling in our hands,” says Anne K. Smith, an architect with Lominack Kolman Smith, who is leading the rehabilitation of the site.

The factory’s foundation had sunk 27 inches into the marsh. It would have completely collapsed within a couple of years, according to Smith, without some structural remediation.

While we herd tourists into often comically inaccurate tours, the museum stands to preserve a true taste of local culture. It’s a place where generations worked unglamorously to support their families, not a ghost story.

Judicial ethics is one thing, but this museum is something else entirely. Regardless of what transpires politically for Thomas as a result of this, in the end, whether Crow signed that check for history’s sake or his own, a very important piece of local culture has been brought back from the brink of destruction.

The museum deserves attention, but not because of what’s put it in the spotlight.

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