Desire’s Past

An essay by Lauret Savoy about remembering/rewriting local American history to include (or not) slavery

Originally published on Terrain.org

What is the integrity of history? Can memory be owned?

Upland South Carolina that June was a thick ripening green, grown from red-rust soil on the ancient metamorphic Piedmont. One question caught between my breath and humid air became another as I walked the path to Walnut Grove’s cemetery.

Twenty ornately carved, marble tombstones mark the graves of family elders Charles and Mary Moore (both dead in 1805), three of their children, and a family extended by marriage and birth. Beyond the footpath, unnoticed at first, more than 124 angular, weathered, fist-size rocks spread like stepping stones through the understory tangle of leaf debris and poison ivy.

My friend Dorinda and I had just completed the plantation tour and wanted to see more of the grounds. I didn’t want to acknowledge what the scattered stones had to be, as if pretended ignorance could hold back tears.

Walnut Grove Plantation, in Spartanburg County, is one of South Carolina’s heritage sites, a tourist attraction long listed on the U. S. National Register of Historic Places. The restored manor house, outbuildings, and furnishings in promotional words “provide a fully documented picture of life, and an example of social history in upcountry South Carolina prior to 1830. The house itself is considered one of the finest remaining upcountry plantation houses of the period. Built about 1765 by Charles Moore, a Scot-Irish immigrant . . .”

Restoration and upkeep of the buildings and adjacent grounds of this once-larger-than-3,000-acre plantation are indeed impressive. Every first weekend of October the Spartanburg Historical Association hosts its “family-friendly” Festifall there, when volunteers in colonial dress demonstrate blacksmithing, quilting, and pewtersmithing; fire muskets in militia drills; and dance to colonial music. Children learn to dip tallow and beeswax candles, and to write with quill pens. Festifall’s highlight is the reenactment of a skirmish between patriots and British loyalists near the end of the Revolutionary War. (It’s rumored that Walnut Grove may have been a rebel recruitment center before the nearby Battle of Cowpens in 1781.)

Our June tour offered no reenactments but still celebrated the patriotic deeds and drama of the Revolutionary War, and the daily life of this immigrant Scots-Irish family who built a “self-sufficient farm” on the Carolina frontier. The history as told to us by a courteous and genial docent grew mostly from the tangible objects of a well-to-do life. The manor house’s front “keeping room” contained the Bible box for important papers, which was kept by the door in case of fire. The rooms featured original furniture, clapboard and paneled walls. Food brought from the kitchen outbuilding was moved from pots to serving dishes in the “changing room.” The gardens, grape arbor, and dipping well were beautifully kept. A “hoppin’ up stone” for entering carriages or mounting horses lay at the end of the front walk. One could easily imagine sitting at the dining table, entering a carriage with graceful step, or otherwise enjoying the hospitality of the Moores.

A froe and splitting maul’s smooth-worn handles and other implements in the outbuildings showed long use. But our guide did not speak of those who used the tools to serve the household or work the land until asked. Although Walnut Grove may have been an operating plantation for a century, her only mention was that “some field stones mark the graves of family slaves.”

My other queries near tour’s end—Where were the quarters? How many people were enslaved here?—met polite silence. Was I impolite to ask such things? When questioned through another tack what happened here through the 1800s, our guide began, “Oh, do you mean was the manor house ever damaged? Oh no…,” and she returned to the 1781 Battle of Cowpens, “which was a great victory for the patriots.” The told history ended in 1805.

Had we visited another day, or walked with another guide, perhaps we could have heard stories of those enslaved. But this day we heard nothing.

Walnut Grove Plantation manor house in spring
Walnut Grove Plantation manor house in spring.
Photo courtesy Walnut Grove Plantation/Spartanburg County Historical Association.

After the tour I learned that Lesson 22 of Project Discovery, co-produced by South Carolina’s Department of Education, was an “Upstate Visit to Walnut Grove Plantation,” where children “discover” colonial life and patriotic heroism. “Discovery words” defined in this virtual field trip include plantation as “a large estate or farm on which crops are raised, often by resident workers,” and self-sufficient as “capable of providing for oneself without the help of others.” The lesson gave much information on how to make candles but no words about those “resident workers” who somehow weren’t but were “others.” As I read Lesson 22, I recalled when as a young child I asked my social studies teacher if we could become slaves. To that outdoors-loving girl the job of a resident worker on a self-sufficient farm would have seemed a wonderful thing.

How is the past remembered and told? In the cemetery I brooded over the impact of a selective public narrative: the story’s who were valorized plantation owners and rebels, the when only four decades. What did it matter that words on slavery or those enslaved were absent, or that little was said of those buried under so many field stones just one-tenth of a mile from the manor house? There is no requirement that a public story must deal with any other particular topic, but here in gentility and silence was what seemed deliberate avoidance.

South Carolina was founded on, and committed as long as possible to, the institution of slavery. From 1708 to the war for independence, Africans outnumbered European colonists, making this the only English mainland colony with a black majority. As Swiss newcomer Samuel Dyssli remarked in 1737, “Carolina looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.” In this sense the colony resembled the “slave societies” of Barbados, Antigua, and other Caribbean sugar islands, where slavery defined economy and larger social-cultural structures. In fact, English planters had brought both slavery and the enslaved from Barbados to the Carolinas in the 1660s, and in doing so transplanted both the status of Africans in servitude for life and the assumption that those worked to death could easily be replaced. By 1690 South Carolina had codified the most violent deprival of enslaved captives’ rights and legal standing of all the English Atlantic colonies.

The war for independence ended in 1783, and for nearly 30 more years South Carolina imported close to 90,000 Africans in chains, at which point its upcountry plantations held almost half the new state’s enslaved population to grow indigo, tobacco, and cotton. At the same time violence increased as those free and in bondage, including men and women who had seized their own independence in the wartime disruption of plantation life, tried to resist planters’ attempts to reimpose the old order. All of these events occurred while and where Walnut Grove grew to become a 3,000-acre plantation.

The burial ground that Dorinda and I visited, and the past as recounted on our tour, seemed to trace across two centuries a desire to seduce private memory and to whitewash a more public memory-history in order to preserve a fragile identity. As Walnut Grove was once owned so, too, it seemed that day, was its memory.

The past is remembered and told by desire.

Festifall Reenactors, Walnut Grove PlantationFestifall Reenactors, Walnut Grove Plantation, South Carolina.
Photo courtesy Walnut Grove Plantation/Spartanburg County Historical Association.

A month after my visit to Walnut Grove I stood in another old cemetery, near my home in rural western Massachusetts. Here at the edge of a wooded terrace above a fertile floodplain lies the old burying ground of colonial Deerfield. Founded by Puritan settlers in 1669 on the Pocumtuck people’s traditional homeland, Deerfield was for nearly seven decades New England’s northwesternmost settlement. The old village, with its frame houses lining a mile-long main street, became a registered National Historic Landmark in 1962. According to its own promotional materials, the popular public history project Historic Deerfield “preserves and interprets the architecture, artifacts and lifestyle of [this] prosperous early New England town,” boasting “some of the finest examples of publicly available Americana in the United States.”

What has not quite been part of Historic Deerfield’s public story is the long presence of people of African ancestry, most of whom were held in bondage from the community’s earliest days to at least the 1780s, when slavery more or less ended in the new state of Massachusetts. I learned of this, instead, on an informal walk through the town with Robert Romer, a retired Amherst College physics professor who had volunteered as a guide in one of the historic houses. He first learned behind the scenes of three “slaves” (Jenny Cole, her son Cato, and Titus) held by Reverend Jonathan Ashley, Deerfield’s minister from 1732 to 1780. Bob then researched the entire town. Nearly half the households along the main street held people enslaved on the eve of the Revolution, while other residents bartered or paid for their labor to assist in farming or related craftswork. (One woman, Lucy Terry Prince, composed in 1746 what may be the first known poem written by an African American.) Of three centuries of stone markers in the burying ground, not one is known to stand over the grave of an African American.

The 1734 Allen House, Historic Deerfield,  Massachusetts
The 1734 Allen House, Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Photo by Lauret Savoy.

Desire also brought slavery—the institution and the enslaved—to colonial New England. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first of the English colonies to legally sanction slavery, and the region profited from it long after the “peculiar institution” ended there.

The enslavement of Native peoples became routine early in the colony’s settlement. As early as 1641 Puritan colonists codified in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties a guarantee of their own and a willingness to take those of captives, strangers, and criminals: “there shall never be any bond-slavery, villenage or captivitie amongst us; unlesse it be lawfull captives taken in just warrs, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves, or are solde to us. . .” Captivity in a “just warr” began with the 1637 war made on the Pequots, when native survivors were shipped aboard the vessel Desire to the short-lived Puritan colony on Providence Island in the Caribbean. The Desire returned in 1638 with what governor Winthrop called a cargo of “salt, cotton, tobacco, and Negroes.” The “Negroes,” who were already held as “perpetual servants” on Providence Island, came in exchange for Pequot captives. With its holds partitioned into racks two feet by six feet, with leg irons and bars, the Desire may be the first documented “slave ship” from the English mainland colonies.

Winthrop’s brother-in-law, Emanuel Downing, outlined in a 1645 letter what may be the oldest-known written argument for the slave trade on the mainland. In it he proposed how profit could be gained in a war with the Narragansett people:

If upon a Just warre the Lord should deliver them into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and children enough to exchange for Moores, which wilbe more gayneful pilladge for us then wee conceive, for I doe not see how wee can thrive untill wee get into a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our buisiness . . . And I suppose you know verie well how wee shall mayneteyne 20 Moores cheaper then one Englishe servant.

Chattel labor from the islands, and the status of those enslaved for life, had come to Puritan New England as well as South Carolina. The needs of island sugar plantations for regular supplies of food and materials drove its commercial economy such that on the eve of the Revolution 80 percent of New England’s exports were Caribbean bound. Ships carried timber, barrels, livestock, dried fish, corn, wheat, potatoes, onions, and flour southward, and returned with harvested sugar, molasses, and other island products. From that molasses hundreds of distilleries produced rum, which then was traded in Africa for captives. Rhode Island and Massachusetts were particularly active. Although the scale of enslavement in New England never reached that of the South, the idea and practice were just as firmly accepted by northern white colonists—and, as C. S. Manegold reminds us, “just as ravaging for those who suffered the consequences.”

Before the Revolution many African-Americans in Massachusetts called on their natural right to freedom in common with other men, and petitioned without success governor after governor, legislature after legislature. “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them,” began one smartly crafted but unsuccessful petition to the General Court in 1773. After war’s end, though, the new state of Massachusetts found slavery violated its constitution and, on March 25, 1788, the General Court banned citizens from engaging in such traffic. The next day the General Court ousted those newly freed by ordering that no “African or Negroe, other than a subject of the Emperor of Morocco, or a citizen of some one of the United States; to be evidenced by a certificate from the Secretary of the State of which he shall be a citizen shall tarry within this Commonwealth, for a longer time than two months.”

How many Americans today know that New England ran hundreds of textile mills? Or that New York City grew as the cotton trade’s financial center and a major port? Southern plantation-grown cotton was so much the root of New York City’s wealth that in January 1861, the eve of the Civil War, mayor Fernando Wood urged the city’s secession from the Union: “With our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy.”

Public (re)presentations of this American history have tended to exclude slavery for most of the last century. Yet at the time of the Revolution, servitude of those of African (and many of Native) descent had been the norm for more than a century and a half. Their labor drove the economies of all 13 British colonies, and every state in the new republic benefited to the Civil War, even in regions where people were no longer enslaved. Just as the products of enslaved labor were an ultimate source of 18th century New England’s commercial economy, so, too, were they in the antebellum 19th century North when the cotton trade reigned. “Cotton thread holds the union together,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal on May 23, 1846. “Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, with music and rockets, but cotton thread is the Union.”

The privilege and profits slavery afforded are not limited to the South nor to the past, as major American financial and educational institutions, newspapers, and tobacco, textile, and railroad companies either amassed wealth or were otherwise supported by the “peculiar institution.” Bank of America’s predecessor banks helped smuggle tens of thousands enslaved Africans into this country. JP Morgan Chase’s predecessor bank used 13,000 enslaved Africans as collateral on loans and even took possession of more than a thousand humans beings. Brown Brothers Harriman built the country’s oldest and largest partnership bank by lending to southern planters, brokering “slave”-grown crops, and investing in the South’s financial system. Aetna wrote life insurance policies on human beings as property with “masters” the beneficiaries in case of loss. Original benefactors of elite educational institutions—among them Yale, Harvard, and Brown universities—were wealthy enslavers or traders.

Memory’s “relation to the past,” writes colonial historian Bernard Bailyn, “is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened . . . it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.” This embrace of memory has held New England, the South—indeed, most of America.

Consider this last “discovery activity” of the South Carolina lesson at Walnut Grove: “A plantation requires that many people work together to be a self-sustaining unit. Some of these workers include carpenters, cooks, stable hands, butlers, field workers, blacksmiths, housekeepers, and seamstress[es].” The lesson goes on to ask students “to write ‘a day in the life’ journal entries from the different perspectives of these workers.” Is this benign teaching when one remembers that it was forbidden, under severe penalties, to teach those (enslaved) workers to read or write?

With narratives and language that celebrate, uplift, and redeem, it might seem possible to live as if exempted from history, or at least from its ambiguity or conflict. Perhaps this is possible if a southern plantation is defined as “a large estate or farm on which crops are raised, often by resident workers.” The silence of the cemetery and woods that June day in Spartanburg County seemed to belie the often brutal, often violent, and almost irresistible power of the enslaver to extract work without consent from the enslaved. Silence was reminder, too, of efforts to bury and erase pieces of a many-storied past.

Those who worked the red Piedmont soil had an intimate relationship with that land, cultivating and harvesting its yield by hand. Another yield was a community landscape apart from the planters’ lives and imposed bondage. Communal knowledge and an element of self-autonomy came from endurance and strength grown in that place. Wild uncultivated nature provided food, medicine, and some sanctuary. If small freedoms were allowed, then hunting or growing small gardens enlarged both means and knowledge of subsistence. But that Black landscape is and isn’t there. Its fabric, vitality, and dailiness left little physical expression that was valued enough to be preserved or remembered by those who owned the land. By excising a complex society within a “slave society” and ignoring the interior lives of “property-in-person,” public (re)presentations like that at Walnut Grove and even Historic Deerfield wither as one-dimensional tales in which said property apparently left no reflective self-story or knowledge worth recording.

The remembered and told past. To whom and to what are such historical (re)presentations responsible?

Denial, concealment, distortion, and erasure of slavery’s memory and history did not occur all at once in the past but in all the successive moments of then to now. What became clear to me at the burying grounds was that each of us is implicated in locating the past-to-present. As I might dig through red earth and time to open a grave, one key task is to uncover the strata of obscuring language and acts, the strata of meanings shrouded through time. The question had to be turned around and made personal: What is my relationship with history told and untold?

Old Burying Ground, Deerfield, Massachusetts
Old Burying Ground, Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Photo by Lauret Savoy.

It is very difficult to engage painful aspects of America’s history and to be self-reflective, particularly if one must confront deeply ingrained beliefs and ideas that have been taken for granted and that have shaped, or made comfortable, one’s sense of identity. Even some descendants of those who were held in bondage wish to ignore that past as a way to excise a sense of inherited shame or pain—or to step away from a story of group victimization. But the legacy of slavery and the racism it fed and reinforced—a malignant symbiosis intrinsic to and embedded within this country’s existence—remains in our collective and individual identities, and in our institutions. Unless persistently confronted it will remain a raw, festering wound for all Americans and a spiritual disfigurement of America.

What I shall call history—both the events that occurred and the narratives told of them—can never be single-voiced because each of us participates in and contributes to it as players, witnesses, and narrators, as producers and consumers, in an ongoing past-to-present. But history as commonly taught still tries to box all that is known of a fixed past into a universal, coherent, sequential story. Such history is supposedly beyond human manipulation. The historian’s job is to reveal or retrieve that securely passed past, stored and waiting, and tell it in the only credible way. Yet that sense of history neglects our relationships to each other and to what is “known” and “not known” of the past. How and why do we know what we know? Who are the we doing the remembering (re-collecting) then telling? What is desire’s role?

If only the intricate relations that cross time and space to implicate us in each other’s lives could be acknowledged, whether by recent immigrant or native, whether by descendant of colonists or those enslaved by colonists. If only we could locate and measure with honesty the genuine conditions of all our lives, and acknowledge how they came to be over generations. This is not being trapped by history nor is it being consumed by guilt over the past. It certainly is not being “victim” without end.

What I felt so acutely at the burying grounds of Walnut Grove and Deerfield was a life-hunger for relation. I wish each of us might recognize how individuality and commonalities of experience could relate, accessible and open, rather than divide. A renewal from one type of ruin. Otherwise, I fear we will continue to wither in the isolation Audre Lorde once called “the learned tolerance of deprivation of each other.”

***

Lauret Savoy writes and photographs across threads of cultural identity to explore their shaping by relationship with and dislocation from the land. A woman of African-American, Euro-American, and Native-American heritage, she is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Her books include The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions), Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology(Trinity University Press), and Living with the Changing California Coast.

Photo—tomsaint/Flickr

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About the Editors

We're all in this together.

Speak Your Mind