Sunday, February 26, 2012

North Carolina transplant reflects on South Carolina home

Mary Garrison, now a resident of Flat Rock, North Carolina, and a columnist for the Blue Ridge Times-News, published this weekend a reverie of her old home in South Carolina.

"How often have we heard the familiar phrase 'Times have changed'?" Garrison writes. "These past two weeks, I have thought a lot about the timeline of history and change. I just returned from a visit to South Carolina, where I lived in my childhood. In my lifespan, South Carolina has seen some modulations."

Modulations. Fluctuations. Ups and downs. The good times and the bad times.

Well, we are given to euphemisms in our South. Have a predilection for 'em.

Perhaps you have heard this saying: South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum. This famous phrase is attributed to S.C. anti-secessionist James L. Petigru in 1861. I can occasionally repeat this, but if someone else pokes fun at South Carolina, I take offense.

The S.C. slogan I prefer is “Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places.”

Oh, it's a great day in South Carolina. Soo-perlative.

But I digress. The object of the trip was some rest and relaxation. In a beautiful city like Charleston, you are bound to rub elbows with the past, for history oozes from every street corner. It was too chilly to be outdoors, so we pursued house tours and museums.

Many Charleston visitors think the Old City Market on Bay Street is where slaves were auctioned. In fact, this happened on Chalmers Street. We discovered the Old Slave Mart Museum when wandering down that cobblestone lane.

I have read slave narratives, written about slavery and seen old photos and newspapers. Somehow, it was more disturbing to stand in a building where people were once bought and sold. Ryan’s Mart, as it was known in the 1800s, was once a complex of four buildings: an auction gallery, a slave jail, a kitchen and a morgue.

The auction house operated from July 1856 to November 1863, in response to a Charleston ordinance prohibiting street auctions. It is the only known extant building in South Carolina that conducted these auctions. Three of the buildings in the complex were destroyed. The auction gallery/museum remains.

It is not a large museum, but there is a lot to learn. There are copies of posters advertising slave sales. It was sobering seeing real people’s names, reading about their skills and the price listings. There are recordings of people who were enslaved, collected by interviewers with the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s.

As one of the Charleston visitor guides (Charleston Gateway-Winter 2012) tells us, a lot of people are aware that there was transatlantic slave trading. Not so many of us know that our Constitution banned the international trade after 1808. This began the rise of domestic sales. More than 2 million enslaved people were sold and relocated in the domestic slave trade between 1789 and 1861.

Wandering down another Charleston street, we found the Heyward-Washington House. Thomas Heyward Jr. was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. President George Washington stayed in his home in 1791.

A well-qualified member of South Carolina's ruling class was the honorable but peculiar young Heyward, who finished his education in England, and who lost a good bit of his fortune in slaves while languishing a while in an English prison in St. Augustine. He narrowly escaped death by drowning; upon his release from prison and during a voyage to Philadelphia, he slipped into the drink and preserved himself by clinging to the ship's rudder until his rescue.

Still he served, as expected, as a judge and congressman, and helped draft the state Constitution of 1790, and left a passel of children by two successive wives, one descendent of which was DuBose Heyward, author of "Porgy," which made a fine opera called "Porgy and Bess" about slaves begging and otherwise enjoying life in Charleston's Cabbage Row, renamed Catfish Row. A handsome segregation academy was opened in Heyward's name in Ridgeland in 1970.

Ironically, our guide informed us that a subsequent owner of the Heyward-Washington House was Judge John Grimke, also a slave owner. His two daughters, Sarah and Angelina, relocated to the North as adults. They were the first female abolitionists who had lived within the institution of slavery in the South. Angelina Grimke also became the first American woman to address a government body.

Alas, it wasn't a government body in South Carolina that Miss Grimke addressed. Deciding that she could not agree with the required pledge to join her father's Episcopalian Church at age 13, she chose instead to become Presbyterian at age 21. But she insisted upon teaching her father's slaves and, at age 24, she dared to ask slaveholding members of her congregation to renounce slavery on the grounds that holding slaves violated Christian law.

Her fellow Presbyterian worshippers didn't agree that slaveholding was a Christian sin, so she left them; they sealed the deal by expelling her formally. She became a Quaker and tried to convert her social peers in Charleston. This was a hard sell, as Quakers were purposefully drab, and Charleston's social elite were purposefully ostentatious. Miss Grimke left for Philadelphia; even there she stood out as an aggressive abolitionist.

In order to find audience for an educated woman's voice, she ultimately had to travel to Massachusetts, where she addressed the subject before the Massachusetts State House in 1837.

An author as well as a public speaker, Miss Grimke published in 1836 a little essay titled "An Appeal to Christian Women of the South," emphasizing the importance of universal public education, including the education of African-Americans. Here in South Carolina, her books were burned. She lived to see slavery abolished, but not long enough to see adoption of her other great crusade, a woman's right to vote.

Thinking again about time and change, I recall attending public schools in Charleston from 1960-64. Per-pupil spending for the 1961-62 school year was $267.11 at white schools and $169.75 at black schools. There were numerous lawsuits that occurred before black parents were allowed to enroll their children in white schools. Some newspapers at that time actually published the names and places of employment of black parents who chose to send their children to white schools, leaving these parents vulnerable in many ways.

Peter Lau's terrific study, "Democracy Rising: South Carolina and the Fight for Black Quality since 1865," names the Times and Democrat of Orangeburg as one newspaper that published the names of 57 men and women who signed a petition asking for an end to segregation in 1955. Many lost their jobs, Lau reports; "sharecroppers evicted, credit and charge accounts revoked, and white-owned supply companies refused to deliver goods to black retailers." City leaders even organized a "White Citizens Council," but that's a topic for another extended blog post.

The schools first desegregated in 1963, when I was 11 years old. It was a tough transition. There were schoolyard fights, shunning, bullying and bomb scares at my school. It was an emotional time. Tragically, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated that same year.

Having lived through this, I cannot help but notice the contrasts between the student populations of two elementary schools in our own community that have been featured in the news so much in recent days. Though per-pupil spending is not the issue here, do we want a divergent situation like this in our community? Surely our school leaders and school board members can collectively make a wise decision to remedy this. I have read with interest the comments and concerns of Donnie Parks and letters to the editor from the teachers involved. We don’t want to return to the inequitable ways of yesterday.

Garrison is clearly talking about her new home in North Carolina. Back here in South Carolina, per-pupil spending remains an issue -- we're trying to get back from 1996 levels to at least 1997 levels -- and school funding inequity hasn't yet been addressed. (Paging Chief Justice Toal? Paging Chief Justice Toal.)

The change in climate in Charleston today is noticeable. I lived there when the Civil War Centennial was celebrated. Conflict over desegregation took center stage, and slavery was not talked about and best forgotten.

Celebrated? You mean, like the sesquicentennial celebration that began with a Secession Ball in Charleston in December 2010?

Today, the City of Charleston owns the slave museum, and the tourism industry proudly promotes African-American heritage tours and Gullah festivals at area historic sites. This side of history is being told. The Sesquicentennial Celebration has a different flavor. The contributions and roles of enslaved people are now part of the dialogue.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Yes, the contributions and roles of enslaved people have become part of a commercial tourism industry. I don't think I'd jump to conclude they're part of a dialogue quite yet. It's hard to get to reconciliation when we're permanently stuck on the Bourbon Restoration.

Wherever you live, there is much one can learn during Black History Month. In our own community, we had the Kingdom of the Happy Land, a community of freed slaves. If you missed the story in last Sunday’s paper, go back and read it.

In Flat Rock, the summer community of many Charleston people, there in the cemetery amid descendants of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is another section that was once overgrown. Church members restored the plot and made small crosses to mark each grave. A bronze tablet bears this inscription: “Here lie the Members of the Church of St. John in the Wilderness who were Slaves, Freedmen and Their Children.”

We're not there yet. But if you should find the grave of a slave who served in the Confederate army, we'll still mount a shiny black plaque on it. It won't be a grand granite marker at a courthouse next to any Confederate monuments or on any other public lands, of course -- let's not be foolish -- but a dignified little plaque that will show the slave served his Confederate nation adequately.

As they say, times have changed. Let’s make sure we cultivate and maintain a positive atmosphere of that change in our own community and in our schools.


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