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.

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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.

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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.”

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Providence church eyed as site for slavery museum

cathedral of st. john

Providence’s Cathedral of St. John may be shuttered, but out front of the 200-year-old structure is a church billboard with block letters that read, “GOD IS NOT DONE WITH US YET.”

Indeed, it appears the church may take on a second life as means to shed light on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role that all early US states – North and South – played in perpetuating slavery.

The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island wants to use part of the Cathedral of St. John for a museum that would examine the state’s role in the slave trade, both those who profited from it and those who opposed it. Churchgoers and clergymen were on both sides.

“In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Rhode Islanders backed 1,000 trips between Africa and the Americas,” according to the Providence Bulletin. “Newport, Bristol and Providence were among the busiest slave trade ports in North America.”

The museum would be the only one in the nation centered on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would also focus on the Episcopal Church’s role in that trade’s history and the often-overlooked legacy of slavery in northern states.

Ironically, the Cathedral of St. John is just a few hundred feet from both the site identified as where Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636 and the location of Williams’ home. Williams, a proponent of religious freedom, has been called the New World’s first abolitionist.

Rhode Island, the nation’s smallest state, played a very large role in slavery.

A Brown University report issued in 2006 found that about 60 percent of all slave-trading voyages launched from North America came from the state, more than 1,000 in all. Some 80 of those came from a single family, the DeWolfs of Bristol, RI.

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We can’t erase Pitchfork Ben, but we can learn from him

pitchfork ben tillman

For more than a century, Tillman Hall has dominated Winthrop University’s campus.

The three-story building, constructed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, features a combination gabled and hipped roof configuration, projecting bay windows, and is highlighted by a clock tower with an open belfry.

The red-brick edifice was erected in 1894, during South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman’s reign, and the structure was named for the Palmetto State politician, who would go on to serve in the US Senate, in 1962. Tillman was instrumental in the founding of both Winthrop and Clemson University.

Unfortunately for Winthrop, Tillman’s legacy hasn’t held up well under the scrutiny of history.

A virulent racist who worked not only to codify Jim Crow laws in South Carolina, Tillman personally advocated the lynching of blacks.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable that a pair of former Winthrop students would like the Rock Hill-based school to consider changing the name of the structure.

However, Winthrop University officials have replied that state law prevents such action.

South Carolina law prohibits changing the name of buildings or monuments named for historic figures, Winthrop Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham wrote to former students Michael Fortune and Richard Davis in a letter this week.

In the letter, Bigham cites a South Carolina law that was passed in 2000 to protect war memorials and historic structures on public property. The law prevents anyone from changing the name of any street, bridge, structure or park that has been “dedicated in memory of, or named for, any historic figure or historic event,” according to the Rock Hill Herald.

Changing the state law requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, the publication added.

Given that it’s difficult to get two-thirds of SC lawmakers to agree on what day of the week it is, it’s unlikely that anyone could gather enough support to rename Tillman Hall.

However, that doesn’t mean that Winthrop can’t use the building’s name as a chance to highlight Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s backwardism or how much damage his views have done to South Carolina over the decades.

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How King, Coca-Cola helped erode segregation in Atlanta

MLK and Jacob Rothschild

Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

King, an Atlanta native who had been actively working against segregation in the South for at least a decade when he was recognized with the honor, initiated a fundamental change in his home city’s business, religious and racial cultures when blacks and whites came together for the first time to share a meal in public to recognize the new Nobel laureate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not surprisingly given the climate of the era, the change didn’t come easily.

King was Atlanta’s best-known figure in 1964 and the first Georgian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the question of how a segregated city would celebrate the accomplishments of a black man wasn’t an easy one to work out, according to the publication.

“ … the races didn’t mix, and King was still black. The immediate question became, how do you honor the man who was now the city’s most recognizable figure?”

Initially, there was talk in the black community about perhaps having a dinner at Paschal’s, where Civil Rights leaders had often met to discuss strategy. However, it was recognized that King should be received by the entire city, not just a segment.

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, along with Catholic Archbishop Paul Hallinan, Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., formed a core group of organizers who set their sights on having a huge banquet at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel downtown, so that King might be honored by a gamut of Atlanta residents, according to the Journal-Constitution.

However, even after the dinner had been announced and a date set, no one bought tickets. Atlanta’s business community wasn’t buying into the idea.

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Investigating the rich history of Lowcountry rice farming

rice barge

When one thinks of antebellum agriculture, one typically thinks of cotton. Indeed, by 1860 Southern farms and plantations supplied 75 percent of the world’s cotton, and Gossypium hirsutum was the dominant agricultural crop from the Carolinas to Texas.

Cotton was such an important part of the pre-war South that the Confederacy believed it would be the ultimate instrument of its independence.

Much less well known today is the princely standing held by another Deep South crop during the days before the War Between the States – that of rice.

Rice was introduced to the United States in the 17th century and is reported to have been cultivated in Virginia almost as soon as the first settlers landed at Jamestown, but it was in the marshy, humid regions of Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia that the crop flourished.

Rice planters couldn’t have succeeded without the forced labor of slaves, particularly those from the Senegambia area of West Africa and coastal Sierra Leone.

At the port of Charleston, slaves with knowledge of rice culture brought the highest price and were put to use on rice plantations around Charleston, Georgetown, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

A new book by Richard Dwight Porcher Jr. and William Robert Judd detailing the once-great Lowcountry rice industry states that nowhere else was an agricultural crop so intimately tied to status and its associated wealth and influence as rice was to the Lowcountry.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice: An Illustrated History of Innovations in the Lowcountry Rice Kingdom is an extensive account of the rice industry in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia.

market preparation“… the real strength of this book is the author’s documentation based on extensive field research of fifty rice plantations, mill sites, museum and archival collections and travels to investigate foreign connections to the Lowcountry rice industry,” according to a review by the Charleston Post and Courier.

The work, published by University of South Carolina Press, which contains “meticulously rendered line drawings depicting the mechanical devices of the rice industry, lend a startling clarity to the written explanations of how they actually functioned and what part each played in the crop’s journey from the field to the consumer,” the publication adds.

The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice identifies the inventiveness of Deep South planters, recognizing that the U.S. Patent Office granted substantial numbers of antebellum patents to South Carolinians for inventions or improvement for rice harvesting and milling equipment alone.

It also recognizes the contributions of slaves “whose blood and sweat transformed inland swamps and riverine marshes into the remarkably dynamic hydraulic systems that composed the sweeping rice fields of the Lowcountry,” according to the Post and Courier.

The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that slaves worked in brutal conditions, explaining “that tidal river marshes were an extremely harsh environment just to exist in, let alone to work in. As it proved, an enslaved work force was the essential element in the survival of the Rice Kingdom, for without them the days of glory were over.”

(Top: Image showing the unloading of rice barges on a 19th century South Carolina rice plantation.)