Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

Church

This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery. Continue reading

Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

Continue reading

Society not culpable for actions of those who commit heinous acts

Police tape is seen outside the Emanuel AME Church, after a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church the night before  in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18, 2015. Police captured a white suspect in a mass killing at one of the oldest black churches in the United States, the latest gun massacre to leave the country reeling. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As a South Carolinian, the murder Wednesday night of nine black men and women at a historic Charleston church by a white man, an attack that appears to have had strong racial motivations, has been, to say the least, extremely disheartening.

My Facebook feed has been filled with a great deal of anguish among friends about this senseless act. As a former journalist, many of those I’m connected to see things from a different political perspective. I lean toward a libertarian stand, partly because I don’t have much faith in political parties and partly because I like to be left alone. Journalists, certainly in the US, tend to be of a more liberal bent, on the whole.

That said, I recognize the need for law and order, and the need for society to function in a cohesive manner. I also believe to some degree we are all our brother’s keepers; I just don’t believe that fact needs to be codified.

That said, Facebook friends are wringing their hands about the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, with many coming to the conclusion that we are all responsible.

One linked to a column by an Atlanta Constitution editor that ran after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963, killing four black girls. In that column, Gene Patterson said all Southerners were responsible by having created a climate for child-killing, thereby encouraging racists who didn’t know better.

Given what went on in the Deep South during Segregation, that may well have been true.

Late yesterday, a former co-worker said we today are guilty of the same:

“A flag that is a racist symbol, an offensive joke, an ugly fraternity chant, the N-word, disrespect for a president, black face paint at a party, and even referring to young, black males as “thugs” or “animals” when they mess up – standing by and accepting these things without taking a stand is wrong. We all share in the guilt. We just don’t know who is listening and who is close enough to the edge to decide that slaughtering black men and women in a church is a noble thing to do.”

I took time this morning to disagree, pointing my remarks toward my acquaintance:

I’m going to voice a contrarian view in that I disagree with the contention that we’re all responsible for this heinous act. The folks that I know, and I pretty sure the ones you know, don’t engage in use of the N-word, ugly fraternity chants or put on black face at parties. Goodness knows there’s plenty of political vitriol, no matter which party holds the Oval Office, but I also don’t think your friends or mine disrespect the current occupant simply because of his race. I certainly hope mine don’t. Thuggery and animalistic behavior, sadly, can be found among all races, as anyone who has lived in the northeast and, like myself, been attacked by drunken white louts for no reason. Should we not use the term at all for fear someone somewhere may attach it to a specific group of people? An example of where the word “thug” would apply is among those who use the Confederate flag, which has different meanings to different people, to intimidate. No doubt this individual didn’t come to be the person he is on his own; no one lives in a vacuum. But my parents didn’t rear me to be anything like this individual and I’m not bringing up my children in an atmosphere that sees intolerance, bigotry and prejudice as acceptable. Blaming these actions on society as a whole waters down this individual’s culpability. He committed these deviant actions for his own reasons. We’re not responsible for his actions; all we can do is pray for those affected and do our best to make the world a better place so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

Sometimes we need to recognize that a bad apple is just that – a bad apple. The South of 2015 is very different from the South of 1963. Imperfect? Oh, yes. At least today people of good will are no longer afraid to stand up and made their voices heard.

(Top: Historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine individuals were killed and three wounded Wednesday night.)

Why one 19th century SC paper urged readers to vote for blacks

Orangeburg County Courthouse

There is no doubt that judging the past by present standards is often poor practice with regard to history.

While many actions of the past were wrong then and remain wrong today, others that we consider egregious today weren’t so clear cut when they occurred.

And sometimes there are cases where historical figures do, more or less, the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

As the mid-term election of 1886 rolled around, Reconstruction in South Carolina had been over for a full decade. However, Democrats, who had “redeemed” the state from Radical Republicans 10 years earlier, weren’t taking any chances. Elections were still spirited affairs, rather than the perfunctory events that they would later become once Democrats had fully consolidated their hold on power in the state.

In 1886, South Carolina had one black congressman, Civil War hero Robert Smalls, and would send two more to Washington before the end of the century. All were Republicans.

While anti-black sentiment among whites in the state had not yet hardened into what it would become under Gov. Ben Tillman’s racially divisive policy, ex-slaves and their descendants were undoubtedly considered second class citizens by both white elites and non-elites.

Still, as the 1886 election neared, at least one South Carolina newspaper urged voters to put prejudice aside and vote a straight-Democrat ticket, even though the ballot contained two black candidates.

The Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote in a Sept. 30, 1886, editorial that democrats needed to place party first:

We hear a great many men say that they will not vote for a negro for office if put on the Democratic ticket. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of the action of the convention in deciding to put two negros on the ticket, we emphatically say that it is the duty of the Democrats of the County to vote for the entire ticket as nominated by the primary, negro and all. The very life of the party itself depends upon its purity and a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, and a rigid and uncompromising discipline. One who obeys the party mandates, and supports the nominated ticket, regardless of his personal objections or animosities for those who compose it, deserve party confidence and can alone be trusted to keep up and preserve the organization. When the action of the party convention is rebelled against, and the ticket scratched or openly opposed, it will not be long before the party itself will go to pieces. Our advice to all Democrats is to vote the ticket straight, whether the ticket as a whole suits their views or not. In this way alone can the unity and ascendancy of the Democratic party be maintained.

The piece was signed by J.L. Sims, editor and owner of the publication.

It should be noted that 19th century American newspapers were often mouthpieces for one political party or the other. That the Times and Democrat urged its readers to vote a straight Democrat ticket likely wasn’t unusual.

Any credit Sims might have gotten for urging readers to vote for the two blacks on the Democratic ballot was greatly diminished by his second sentence, in which he essentially calls into question the S.C. Democratic Convention’s decision to include two African-American candidates on the ticket.

It’s unclear who the two candidates in question were or how they fared in the Nov. 2, 1886, election.

What is clear from South Carolina history is that as time went on and segregation became entrenched in all aspects of life, there would be little reason for editors such as Sims to urge voters to cast ballots for blacks on the Democratic ticket.

The powers that be made certain such episodes didn’t happen again.

(Top: Old postcard showing Orangeburg (SC) County Courthouse, built in 1875. It served the county until 1928.)

Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

Julia_Peterkin

My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

Continue reading

The bigot, the five-day governor and the much-needed reformer

Livingston-Coleman-Blease

One hundred years ago this month, Lt. Gov. Charles A. Smith began the shortest reign in South Carolina gubernatorial history, a five-day stretch as the Palmetto State’s chief executive that ran from Jan. 14-19, 1915.

Smith’s brief tenure as governor came about as the result of the actions of one of the more reprehensible South Carolinians to hold office in the state’s nearly 350-year history: Coleman Livingston “Cole” Blease.

Blease, a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician cut from the same cloth as Pitchfork Ben Tillman, earned election to the state’s highest office through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

The state was anything but a hotbed of progressivism in the early 20th century, but Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman. For example, Blease is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

In their book “Columbia: History of a Southern Capital,” Lynn Salsi and Margaret Sims identified some of Blease’s more “endearing” legacies:

Despite the need for reform, he fought regulation of safety, public health and education. He also pardoned a record number of criminals, some say more than 1,500. His vetoes included hand-written messages using profane language, the wrote.

Worse yet was his treatment of blacks.

In his 1911 inauguration address, Blease stated, “I am opposed to white people’s taxes being used to educate negroes.” He later added that he was opposed to white convicts being placed in the same labor camps as black convicts, adding that he believed that “a governor would be justified in granting a pardon to a white man who is thus treated, …”

In the same address, he urged the re-institution of public executions, particularly those of blacks.

Continue reading

Why the Sand Creek Massacre needs to be remembered

At_the_Sand_Creek_Massacre,_1874-1875

This past weekend marked the 150th anniversaries of two bloody events in US history: The Battle of Franklin, a Union victory over Confederate forces at Franklin, Tenn., in the waning months of the Civil War; and the Sand Creek Massacre, in which US cavalry forces attacked an Indian camp of mostly women, children and old men more than 1,000 miles away in the Colorado Territory.

Both were routs, although only in the first were the odds anywhere near being even.

At Franklin, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood’s Army of the Tennessee was annihilated by Union Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield’s Army of Ohio, while at Sand Creek a force of 700 Union cavalrymen destroyed a village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe in an unprovoked attack that claimed as many as 200 lives.

The anniversary of the former, which effectively destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force, was noted by history aficionados, particularly Civil War buffs, and through media accounts, while the latter, among the most brutal of many assaults on Native Americans by US forces during the War Between the States, went relatively unnoticed outside Colorado.

My first brush with the Sand Creek Massacre, albeit tenuous, came earlier this year, when I visited a historic graveyard in the West Coast town where I attended high school, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Evergreen Cemetery features the final resting place for dozens of Civil War veterans, including Lanader Prindle, who served in the 3rd Colorado Cavalry Regiment.

Living in the South for the past 15 years, and away from California for nearly all of the past 30 years, I had little knowledge of units that served in the west during the War Between the States. In addition, the 3rd Colorado piqued my interest because it came from a territory, as Colorado was still a dozen years away from statehood.

It was after a bit of research that I learned that the 3rd Colorado, along with the 1st Colorado Cavalry and a company of the 1st New Mexico Cavalry Regiment, took part in the Sand Creek Massacre, another aspect of US history I knew little about.

The stage was set for the Sand Creek Massacre when Black Kettle, a chief of the Southern Cheyenne, led his band to Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado, according to provisions of a peace parlay held in Denver in September 1864.

Colorado’s leaders, including Col. John Chivington, a former Methodist pastor, and Colorado territorial governor John Evans, had adopted a hard-line against Indians, whom white settlers accused of stealing livestock.

Chivington made no qualms about his view toward Native Americans: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”

Continue reading