Charleston begins to address black history with Robert Smalls memorial
by Will Moredock
On the night of May 13, 1862, slave and harbor pilot Robert Smalls and a crew of slaves commandeered the Confederate steam transport CSS Planter in Charleston Harbor while its officers were ashore. He made his way up the Cooper River to pick up his wife and children and the families of the crew. He then slipped out of the harbor, past Fort Sumter and other heavily fortified Confederate coastal positions.
Approaching the blockading Union fleet, he ran up a white flag and surrendered the Planter to the United States Navy. Instantly, Smalls became a hero throughout the North, and his knowledge of Charleston Harbor and coastal defenses made him an invaluable asset. He was named captain of the Planter — the first African American to command a U.S. warship — and fought in 17 engagements with Confederate forces.
After the war, Smalls founded the South Carolina Republican Party and was elected to the General Assembly, where he helped draft the S.C. Constitution of 1868, creating the first public education system in the state. He was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served intermittently until 1886. However, in 1895, all of that progress was erased. At the state constitutional convention, Smalls watched helplessly as the white majority stripped blacks of their right to vote and imposed Jim Crow laws upon the state. After that, he held several other minor public positions until his death in 1915. Then he disappeared from history, erased by the white men and women who reasserted their control over Charleston and the rest of the South in the days after Reconstruction.
This weekend we begin to make amends for a century of lost history. A two-day observance of Robert Smalls’ life and work will be held in Charleston, marking the 150th anniversary of his heroic feat aboard the Planter. A historic marker will be placed on the Battery near the spot where Smalls seized the boat. It will be one of the few historical markers in the Holy City dedicated to an African American.
There is no final draft of history. Each generation must come to grips with its past in its own way. It must determine for itself what is important, what is real, and what is bogus.
Of course, history is much more than a record of the words and deeds of the long departed — it is the measure of the relative power of those telling the tale. The cynic’s wisdom holds that history is written by its winners. Before there were history books, there were monuments to remember great men and moments. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, rulers would sometimes have their predecessors’ names chiseled from monuments or they would have the heads removed from their predecessors’ statues and replaced with their own visages. The South had its own way of whitewashing the past.
Losing the Civil War so traumatized white Southerners that it scarred not just the way they interpreted that tragic conflict, but the way they recorded most of their history. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the recording of black history. For the most part, whites dealt with the history of slavery and its aftermath by ignoring it, as in the case of Robert Smalls.
If they did write about it, it was usually in that tradition of "moonlight and magnolias," a popular mythology pioneered by Charleston writer William Gilmore Simms. It was Simms who first spun the tale of the bold cavaliers and maidens in hoop skirts who shared a pastoral paradise with their happy slaves until the serpent of Northern industrial capitalism crept into their Eden, turning slave against master, North against South. It was a useful myth that allowed the South to ignore the brutality of slavery and their responsibility for the war.
After the Civil War, white Southerners created nothing less than a new civil religion. The Lost Cause became as central to the Southern social structure as the resurrection to Southern Baptist theology. Historian Walter Edgar has written that "a detailed guidebook for the Lost Cause" was offered by the Rev. Dr. John L. Girardeau, when he addressed several thousand white mourners in Charleston in 1871 on the occasion of the reinterment of the South Carolinians killed at Gettysburg.
"Let us cling to our identity as a people!" Girardeau urged his listeners, in order to ensure that the "precious blood" of those who died would not have been "spilt wholly in vain." He urged white Carolinians to institute "peculiar customs and organizations" to memorialize the past. There must be days of remembrance, memorial associations, and atheneums for "collections of our own history." White Southerners would educate their young "by making our nurseries, schools, and colleges channels for conveying from generation to generation our own type of thought, sentiment, and opinion." Carolinians should "tenaciously hold on to the fragments of a noble past." The heroes of Gettysburg, Girardeau said, had fought for a defeated, but not a "wholly lost — cause."
For generations, white Southerners fulfilled Girardeau’s mandate, but the spell of Southern romanticism seems to have finally come to an end.
Today, a new generation of historians is not content to challenge the old narrative of race and conflict, but is intent on a new and more inclusive narrative that will better define who we are and where we have been.
Perhaps the individual most responsible for the way Charleston is telling its story today is Michael Allen, community partnership specialist for Fort Sumter National Monument, the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, and the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Allen came to work at Fort Sumter for the National Park Service in 1980, fresh out of what was then S.C. State College with a degree in history.
"People came up to me at Fort Sumter and said they were surprised to see me here," the Kingstree native says. "I understood what they were saying. They did not associate black people with the Civil War. And when I looked around, I didn’t see anything of myself here."
That launched him on a 30-year journey to set the record straight, to write himself and his ancestors into South Carolina history. In that time he has brought together most of the important organizations and institutions, including museums and plantations, to create what he calls a "broad-based, diverse and holistic" view of local history. "It’s only right," he said. "This is about American history. It’s about protecting, preserving, and disseminating American history."
Over the years Allen has conducted two programs for the NPS celebrating the life of Robert Smalls, and he was critical to the planning and staging of this week’s events. "At the end of the day, Robert Smalls is a thread in our American fabric," he says. "This will be a solemn and moving commemoration."
Part of that commemoration will be the placing of two historic markers on May 12, one at Waterfront Park, the other on the Battery at the Historic Charleston Foundation. But they will soon be joined by five more markers placed by the Preservation Society at sites selected earlier in the year by online voters. All of the markers will deal with Charleston’s civil rights history.
In charge of the historic marker program is Aurora Harris, the Preservation Society’s diversity programs manager. "We hope that by bringing people to the places where this history was made, we can make it alive for them again," she says. "Many young people today have no memory of the Civil Rights Movement. This will help make it more real to them than just a history lesson."
One site that has largely escaped notice is Burke High School. Historians are just beginning to understand the role Burke and other black schools played in the early movement. Jon Hale is one of them. Hale, an assistant professor of education at the College of Charleston with a focus on the history of education and the Civil Rights Movement, is studying the role of black schools in the inception of the movement, with a particular focus on Burke, where students and teachers were organizing to take action in the 1950s and 1960s. The young blacks who staged Charleston’s first lunch counter sit-in in 1960 were Burke students. Former Charlotte, N.C., mayor Harvey Gantt, who broke the color line at Clemson University in 1963, was a Burke grad.
"The African-American schools were creating critical thinkers who impulsively questioned the order of things," Hale says. He wants young blacks to understand the role students their age played in the Civil Rights Movement a half-century ago. The digital world may make that goal possible.
Technology is revolutionizing the way history will be told and understood in the future. In the past, history was almost exclusively the domain of professional historians, those with the training, the access, the means to visit distant libraries and handle ancient books and documents. That day is rapidly coming to an end, as more and more of those books and documents go online for anyone to study. At the College of Charleston, John White directs the Lowcountry Digital Library, which now has digitized over 60,000 uncurated items. "Making materials available digitally is a whole new way to engage with historians and the public," White says. "Documents that were once available to professional scholars are now available to all."
Today more people have access to more historical records than ever before, and so it is more difficult than ever for Southern mythologists to spin their yarns about slavery and Reconstruction. "Now historians can actually go back and try to figure out how we got those ideas and why they were perpetuated," White says.
At the S.C. Historical Society, Mary Jo Fairchild is also digitizing a vast trove of manuscripts, which are not the stuff of carriage tours and romance novels. Thousands of records document the mundane work and pleasure of the ordinary folk of 19th-century Charleston, including contracts between freedmen and landowners during Reconstruction, roll books of volunteer firefighters in the 1860s, and daily reports on Fort Sumter’s fortifications performed by slaves and soldiers in 1863. "Taken together, these items provide fresh perspectives and new raw material for the interpretation of our city’s past," Fairchild says. "It is my hope that free access to historical information that more realistically represents the people who made Charleston what it is today will garner more interest and create new allegiances from a wider base of people interested in Charleston’s rich culture and tradition."
Of course, there is nothing appealing about slavery, especially to those in the tourism business. To hear many of the history guides tell Charleston’s story, slavery was little more than an inconvenience to black people — if it existed at all.
But that is probably not the guides’ fault, says Mary Battle, who is working on her doctorate in history at the College of Charleston. The fact is that tourists want a cleaned-up version of history. They want entertainment. In this long-underdeveloped region, where tourism is a major source of income, the locals give tourists what they come for. "The traditional way of telling African-American history is to make it a sort of add-on to the traditional narrative," she says. "But the narratives are segregated."
The future of good history tourism is to interweave the two narratives, the way the people who lived Charleston’s past interwove their lives, often violently and lustily, but they could not avoid interacting with one another on a daily basis.
There is much that we must do to correct the story Charleston has been telling about itself for centuries. Changing attitudes and technological advancements have made it possible for historians to rearrange the physical and cultural landscape of Charleston in an effort to create a 21st-century story we can all see ourselves in.
Lies, lies, lies
In his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, historian James W. Loewen catalogs hundreds of monuments and plaques with misinformation about American history, most of it regarding the treatment of Native Americans, blacks, and other minorities and the role of religion in the history of the Republic.
Most of these errors can be addressed, he suggests, with supplemental plaques or monuments to set the record straight. But some are so malevolent in their intent that nothing less than the wrecking ball could provide remedy. He lists 20 such sites around the country; three of them are in South Carolina.
The first Palmetto State monument that Loewen says should be torn down would be the statute of John C. Calhoun, which stands tall in Marion Square. Loewen cites Southern historian Clement Eaton, who called Calhoun a "pernicious agitator" who "exploited the slavery issue and created stereotypes in the minds of the Southern [white] people that produced intolerance." Loewen would like to see Calhoun removed from Marion Square, the Statehouse in Columbia, the U.S. Capitol, and Calhoun College at Yale University.
Next would be the "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman statue on the Statehouse grounds. The S.C. governor and U.S. senator is best remembered today for his efforts to suppress the black vote. In 1876 he even wrote, "We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it."
When President Theodore Roosevelt hosted Booker T. Washington at the White House, Tillman celebrated the occasion with this remark: "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that Negro Booker T. Washington will necessitate our killing a thousand Negroes in the South before they will learn their place again."
And finally, there is the plaque in Fort Mill’s Confederate Park, which reads: "Dedicated to the faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the army, with matchless devotion, and with sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women, and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America."
Loewen offers a form of reprieve to some of his targeted monuments. They might find new life in a museum, with proper commentary, rather than being consigned to the landfill.
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