Friday, 4 October 2013

Deep South Pt 2: "Give me liberty or death". The Road to Slavery, Charleston to Savannah.

[From Tennessee, I drove back into North Carolina to Greensboro. It took roughly four hours, but it is an incredibly important site on the Civil Rights Trail. The drive was worth it.] 

“Friday 29th July – I arrived at the Civil Rights Museum just in time for a guided tour. Before entering the main exhibition, the visitor was greeted by a “Hall of Shame” where photographs of the worst atrocities from the Civil Rights period were displayed. It was designed to point out the hypocrisy of American society: in theory America had always presented itself as a country synonymous with freedom, when the exact opposite was true. There were photographs of violent struggles in Mississippi, the ruins of the church in Birmingham struck by a bomb in 1963, the bodies of Civil Rights activists and the swollen face of Emmett Till. 

In 1955, Emmett Till was visiting family in Mississippi when he allegedly flirted with a white woman. That evening, he was kidnapped, tortured and beaten to death; his body was mutilated and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. He was 14 years old. When Emmett’s body was recovered, his face was so swollen he was almost unrecognizable but his mother insisted on an open casket for his funeral so “the world could see what Jim Crow had done to her son.” The photograph of his body made international headlines. Many African American teenagers had been lynched or tortured before, but rarely had a case involving racist violence and the lack of law and order become so public. The new African American museum in Washington D.C. (opening in 2015) has acquired the original casket in which Emmett’s body was placed.

…The main reason for visiting this museum however was to learn about the Greensboro sit-ins, which revolutionalised the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In department stores, all lunch counters were segregated – a section for white, a section for black. In 1960, four black students named Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McClain and Joseph McNeil strongly believed in a peaceful form of direct action and were determined to change the laws of segregation. They sat in the white section of the lunch counter in Woolworths and were refused service until the store closed. They returned the next day. A week or so later, their protest had grown to over 20 students from the surrounding colleges, white and black. The sit-in movement spread like wildfire across the South and despite attempts by the white population to remove them (this included pulling students by their hair, spitting at them and shouting vile language in their faces), they refused to give up. After six months of this, the Woolworths store in Greensboro lost over $200,000 and reluctantly the manager desegregated the lunch counter. It would take years for other cities to follow this example, but the news coverage was so extensive the sit-ins became an essential turning point for Civil Rights history.

I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but the museum is situated on the old Woolworths’ building, and has preserved the seats and the lunch counter from 1960. Even the floor tiles were original! It was incredible to stand in the room where four ordinary students made history. Before I left the museum, I had a great chat with the African American security guard (he liked my accent...) He told me some interesting personal stories and his experiences with racism: 20 years ago he left his job because he had scored higher than everyone else in a test but did not receive a raise because he was black. For much of the South, “the Civil War was still being fought”, particularly in Louisiana and Florida where "racial prejudice thrives.”

“Wednesday 31st July – Americans have this image of Britain as a rainy and horrible place. Yes it does rain in Britain a fair amount but not in the same league as the States. For when it rains in America, the heavens open, and rivers form within about three minutes. Unfortunately, I had chosen this particular moment to arrive at Boone Hall Plantation, the first destination I was feeling giddy about visiting. “Have you got an umbrella?” the ticket man asked me as I pulled up at the entrance. (I was wearing a maxi dress and sunglasses at this point and must have looked a prize idiot). “Um, no I don’t. I’m hoping it’s going to stop soon…” My voice trailed away as the man looked at me pitifully. “Enjoy your visit.”

So the infamous drive I had been waiting for, the alley of oaks leading to a spectacular mansion, took place in the pouring rain. Not exactly what I had in mind. After a quick change in the back of my car (classy) I ran to the house and sat on the porch waiting for the rain to stop, which thankfully it did after an hour or so. I booked a house tour and a place on the Gullah presentation, and to kill time I explored the slave cabins. Boone Hall has 9 cabins made out of brick, which is incredibly unusual for the time because most were made out of wood. These cabins were in the front yard and visitors would have seen these first before the main house: if the slave cabins were made from brick, you knew you were entering a wealthy plantation. Each cabin would have housed between 6-12 people, mainly house slaves as the field slaves would have lived in wooden cabins in the fields. (There was a hierarchy among the enslaved, and you were considered ‘higher up’ on the scale if you worked in the house.)

On this particular plantation, long grain rice was grown and produced by the enslaved. This area of South Carolina was famous for rice and cotton, and many plantation owners earned thousands by selling their goods across the country, and beyond. (For example, in Liverpool 90% of imported cotton came from the South.) Depending on the crop and the plantation owner (or overseer if the owner was away on business), the slaves would work from dawn until dusk in the sweltering heat. A slave was seen as property, and often a slave in their 30s with a particular skill (for example, a carpenter) could reach $1800 on the auction block. If a plantation owned 100 slaves…well you do the math. Slaves were allowed one set of clothes per year, and one day off a week (or sometimes once a month, again this varied from plantation to plantation). 

The enslaved were governed by a series of laws called the Black Codes. The laws differed slightly in each Southern state but generally they were fairly similar. Slaves were not allowed to read or write, to answer back or strike a white person. Their testimony was dismissed in court, and they had to carry papers at all times if they were travelling away from their own plantation. They could not travel alone, or assemble in groups (within or outside the plantation). Essentially, the codes were designed to restrict escape attempts and to completely control the slave population.

In each cabin, there was a small exhibition on the life of a slave and what happened to them after the Civil War. Quotes by Frederick Douglass, the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and former slave Harriet Tubman adorned the walls. Tubman, my personal heroine, declared “there is either liberty or death, and if I can’t have one, I will have the other.” Standing in those slave cabins was the most surreal moment of my life so far. I had read about slavery for five years, imagined what life must have been like for a slave living in the heart of South Carolina, or in the humidity of Louisiana, but nothing came close to standing in that cabin, feeling the marks of fingerprints on the walls, and looking out of the window to stare at the alley of oak trees. What would the enslaved have experienced within these walls? Loss and sacrifice. Heartbreak and death. Love and defiance. Survival.

It was an incredibly moving experience, and one that I shall never forget.

After a tour of the ‘big house’, I listened to a fascinating presentation on Gullah culture. The Gullah are descendants from African slaves, and the language has influenced society for generations. The Gullah culture focuses on ancestors, and whereas we might say “our guardian angel was looking out for me today” someone who believed in the Gullah way of life would say “my great great grandfather was protecting me today.” In the Gullah culture, no one dies per se: they merely ‘pass on’ to the next life (which is why we say somebody has “passed away.”)

“Friday 2nd August: Charleston – Following on from my presentation yesterday, I went on a Gullah tour of Charleston for two hours, which highlighted many hidden African American sites across the city. A visit to the Charleston Museum was a bit of a waste of time – it was good, but I thought they crammed too much into a small space and didn’t really explain things properly. This is a shame, because the history of Charleston is fascinating, from the pre-revolutionary period to the post-Civil War era. In the c18th, Charles II gave 8 (English) Lord Proprietors the stretch of land in North America that would become known as the Carolinas (this means ‘Charles’ in Latin), and they began building plantations that became an essential part of the economy for many years. After the museum, I booked a ticket on the ferry to Fort Sumter, the place where the American Civil War began. This is one of the world’s most important historical sites, and it was amazing being able to stand there, in a place that saw much bitter fighting between the Unionists and Confederates.”

“Saturday 3rd August – [I went to many historic sites in Charleston on this day, including the Old Exchange Building where I learned a great deal about pirates; the Aiken-Rhett House, a great example of urban slavery and a ghost walking tour. Technically the ghost tour in New Orleans was much better so I will write that one up instead…] The most impressive part of the day without contest was the Old Slave Mart Museum (left). This building was originally a slave auction from the 1850s, and it was incredibly overwhelming to stand in a place where slaves were sold, imagining the cries of the sellers, the traders and the slaves. Soloman Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, provides one of the best descriptions of such a slave market, and declared “it was a mournful scene indeed” as husbands and wives, mothers and children were separated and never reunited. This particular auction was moved inside as Charlestonians believed the slave business “jarred with the genteel aspect of the city.” The museum was small but very good. It was a balanced interpretation of what happened within an auction, from the point of the view of the slave and the trader. It did well to consider slave resistance too: a slave was told to speak little and act obedient, but he or she could tell by trader's questions where they were likely to be sold to. This offered a slave the chance to frame their answers, for example, if a trader asked particular questions about rice or cotton it was likely he or she would remain in South Carolina or Georgia, potentially near family members. If asked about sugar, it would be a ticket to Louisiana. So, if a slave had family on a rice plantation, and he or she was approached by someone in the rice business, they could describe their skill in an effort to be sold to that person. I had never heard of this before and I found it fascinating, if only to add to my interest in how slaves resisted their condition. One particular story reinforced this. One enslaved woman remembered stepping forward on the auction block and realizing she was being scrutinized by a cruel plantation owner named Old Judge Miller. She called out – “Old Judge Miller, don’t you bid for me, because if you do, I will cut my throat from ear to ear rather than work for you.” Miraculously, the Old Judge stepped down, but unfortunately this independence came at a price. The woman’s father had persuaded his owner to buy her, but after witnessing this exchange the owner refused, as he did not want a 'sassy' slave. Heartbroken, the father watched as his daughter was sold to another trader in Missouri.”

“Monday 5th August – I spent the day in Savannah, which if I’m honest was a little bit of a let down. It was a beautiful city but no where near what I imagined it to be and after the beauty of Charleston it seemed rather unexciting. Saying that, I visited Leopold’s ice cream parlour, the 5th best parlour in the world. I had a chocolate, raspberry and vanilla sundae and it’s probably the most beautiful thing I have ever or will ever eat in my life. [All ice cream I have had since has tasted like dirt. Truth.] To maintain my excitement over dinner, I had a trolley tour of the city, which is not something I usually do but it was hot and I was so exhausted from Charleston I wanted to sit down for 2 hours and be driven around. It turned out to be a fabulous tour, with lots of interesting anecdotes:

1.) Mirrors were often placed on the outside of houses to make the house bigger and also so ladies could adjust their skirts before entering (it was considered most shameful to show a petticoat in the c19th).
2.) Pineapples are a symbol of welcome and were placed in the window of a house to indicate a party was going to take place. However, when the pineapple was removed from the window, you knew it was time to leave.
3.) Ladies would carry smelling salts around their necks to aid their friends if they fainted in the heat. (Corsets sound like a nightmare).
4.) The statue of a Confederate Soldier stands in the famous Forsyth Park. This was built by the Daughters of the Confederacy shortly after the Civil War, but it was shipped to the South via water as the women did not want any section of the statue to touch Northern soil. The soldier stands facing North, ready to defend his people once again.

I briefly had a guided tour around the Richards-Owen House, another example of urban slavery within Savannah. It was a lovely house, and was infamous in the c19th for its size, elegance, and modern features. The house had an indoor plumbing system in 1819, fifteen years before the White House! Unfortunately, the life of the slave was once again shunned and ignored. It is interesting and irritating to watch a tour unfold with so little mention over an essential part of social history, and frankly if we’re going to be blunt, economic history."

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