Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant. All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks. If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook. Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery. Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s. Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.
Here are a few selections:
“The Africans were used to a hot climate,” Oliphant wrote. “They made fine workers under the Carolina sun.”
“Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.”
“Most masters treated their slaves kindly … the law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick.”
“Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter’s interest to have them healthy and contented.” That there were so few slave uprisings in South Carolina “speaks well for both whites and Negroes,” she writes.
On the Civil War
The Negroes for the most part stayed on the plantations or farms … The relationship between the whites and Negroes on the plantations was at this time very friendly. Most of the slaves had proved their affection and loyalty to their masters … For more than four years the women and children had remained on the land with only the Negroes to protect them.”
“For the following eight years South Carolina was governed largely by a ruthless band of thieves.” Carpetbaggers “took advantage of the ignorance and lack of experience of the Negroes … Those who did not vote Republican were threatened and mistreated. Moreover, the Republicans had the encouragement of Congress and the backing of federal troops.”
“The new legislature was made up chiefly of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Negroes under their influence … Many members of the legislature could neither read nor write.”
“The sight of the mounted klansmen in their white robes was enough to terrorize the Negroes. When the courts did not punish Negroes who were supposed to have committed crimes, the Klan punished them.”
This weekend’s commemorative activities in Charleston are about much more than Robert Smalls and the city’s collective past. Public events such as the dedication of a marker to Smalls and other educational events are a statement of a community’s values and its commitment to moving forward on the racial front. More specifically, such events constitute a set of expectations of- and confidence in the community’s next generation.
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