"Roundheads and Ramblings"
This week we will celebrate the 187th birthday of Laura Matilda Town, who just happens to be the main character in my next book, The Road to Frogmore. Laura was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 3, 1825, the middle child in a large family; she had a brother and two sisters who were older than she was, and a brother and two sisters who were younger. Her mother died when Laura was nine--a tragedy that left its mark on all of her children, and particularly on Laura. As she admits at one point in the book, she always felt responsible for her mother's death. Maybe, if she had just been a better child, she thought, her mother wouldn't have tried to give birth to a new baby.
Laura grew up to be an unconventional woman. She was a Unitarian in an era of evangelical fervor. She studied to be a doctor, when women doctors were still a rarity. She refused to marry, in an age when every woman was expected to become a dutiful wife. Instead, she set up her own household with her lifelong companion, Miss Ellen Murray. But nothing she did was more outrageous than her decision to travel to South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War so that she could bring medical care and education to the slaves who were just learning that they were going to be free.
Her efforts on behalf of the people she came to know on St. Helena Island did not stop when the war was over. She felt responsible for all the evils of slavery, which was not surprising, given her character, and she refused to abandon the people she had come to love. Instead, she and Ellen bought a former plantation right there on the island, and built a school financed entirely from Laura's own inheritance. The two women adopted several black children and raised them as their own. They continued to teach for the rest of their lives. They provided an education that was the equivalent to (or perhaps better than) the state-provided education of white children. Laura died on St. Helena Island in 1901, and Ellen followed her in 1908.
Their school, however, outlived them. Known first as The Penn School, so named in honor of the Freedmen's Aid Society of Pennsylvania, it has evolved today into The Penn Center, whose purpose is the preservation of the Gullah language and heritage of the people of St. Helena Island. This year, you will note, is the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Penn School, and the Penn Center will be honoring Miss Towne and her amazing contributions to the welfare of the people she helped to transform from slaves into citizens. So happy birthday, Laura. We're still trying to live up to your ideals.
One habit of
the former slaves seemed particularly to confound those who had come to help
them make the transition from slavery to full citizenship—their distinctive
religious ceremonies. The missionaries did
their best to teach the lessons of Christianity and to re-introduce regular
worship services on each plantation. The blacks were attentive and respectful,
but when the official services were over, they pushed back the furniture and
organized their own religious celebration known as the "Shout."
Sometimes the whites were invited to observe, although never to participate,
and several of the missionaries tried to describe what they saw:
. . . when the 'sperichil' is struck up,
[they] begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other,
in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is
mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter,
and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes
as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes the song
itself is also sung by the dancers. But more frequently a band, composed of
some of the best singers and of tired shouters, stand at the side of the room
to "base" the others, singing the body of the song and clapping their
hands together or on the knees. Song and dance are alike extremely energetic,
and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous
thud, thud, of the feet prevents sleep within a half a mile of the
was widespread. Some of the easily shocked missionaries called the practice "the
remains of some old idol worship," "the most hideous and at the same
time the most pitiful sight I ever witnessed," "savage," or
"barbarous." Other observers considered it an "amazing and
primitive manifestation of the Negro spirit . . . Some 'heel and toe'
tumultuously, others merely tremble and stagger on, others swoop and rise,
others whirl, others caper sideways, all keep steadily circling like dervishes
. . ."
What many failed to recognize was
that the "Shout" served important purposes. It was a chance for
slaves to escape the rigors of the workday, and to exercise a bit of creativity
and self-expression. The adults might disapprove of young people dancing
"out in the world," but in the "Shout" they could turn a
natural inclination into a form of worship. The songs were improvised but very
creative, and provided a chance to articulate the longings that masters would
not allow under ordinary circumstances. They expressed a desire for escape,
even if it was through death.
The best of the
missionaries saw in the "Shout" a unique combination of ancient
cultural traits and the new faith of Christianity. The worst ones could not come
to terms with what they did not understand.
April 1862 was also the month in which a group of teachers and missionaries moved into the sea islands to work with the slaves who had been abandoned when the Union Army arrived in South Carolina. the members of this group are the subjects of my upcoming book, The Road to Frogmore. Although the missionaries were staunch abolitionists, they had little idea of the challenges they would face. A Scratch with the Rebels mentioned a few of them.
As the young Gideonites moved onto the abandoned
plantations of the Sea Islands, they confronted a myriad of situations for
which their college educations had not prepared them. They had arrived with
high expectations of cooperation from the local authorities in their efforts to
prepare the slaves for freedom. They were dismayed to discover that those
seemingly in command could not even cooperate with each other. One new
plantation superintendent, Edward S. Phibrick, reported that he had trouble
getting the crops handled, because of interference from two sources. Gen.
Hunter was trying to call up recruits for his new volunteer troop, and the
cotton agents were hiring the men away for fifty cents a day. Philbrick
complained that the blacks would wonder off and then return several days later,
expecting to see their families and then go back to work: "They are nearly
all active young men and are pleased with this roving sort of life, but you may
imagine how fatal such a state of thing is to my efforts at organization"
Susan Walker also commented on the clashes
over conflicting authorities: "I fear the cotton agent, Salisbury,
stationed here is not a good man. The Negroes complain of him, and they all
look so neglected it is quite evident he has done no good upon the plantation.
He drives the finest horses I have seen in Port Royal or St. Helena, gives good
dinners, entertains largely, has appropriated all the furniture and nearly all
the teams about the place and refuses to give anything to the superintendents
placed there by Mr. Pierce."
Such complaints and others reflected
the various misapprehensions under which the missionaries and other Northern
authorities labored in their early efforts to handle the problems of the
abandoned slaves. Susan Walker found her duties frustrating. Her first
impression of her pupils was that they were "ragged and dirty" but
polite, welcoming, more eager for books than for clothes. She was a teacher by training and an
abolitionist by conscience, and the abolitionist in her believed that to hand
out charity to the blacks would be to deny them their inherent equality. At the
same time, she could not ignore the lack of "social graces" that set
them apart from other students she had known. She was encouraged on the one
hand by their receptiveness but repelled by their lack of basic hygiene. Soon
she was sending at least half of them home from her makeshift classroom each
morning to wash their hands and faces before she would teach them. Not long
after her arrival, she visited the Jenkins' plantation, about eight miles away,
where she met a very pregnant slave woman whose problems overwhelmed her.
"Katy has 7 ragged, dirty children—what shall be done? No husband and nothing.
Some clothes are given for her children—one naked, and must have it at once. Is
Katy lazy? Very likely. Does she tell the truth? Perhaps not. I must have
faith, and she must at least cover her children."
Philbrick's reaction was somewhat
more admiring, although he recognized that his wife might have reservations
about working with the former slaves. He warned her that she could not bring a
servant with her if she chose to join him: "There are plenty of servants
here, which you are supposed to teach not only to read but—what is more
immediately important—to be cleanand
industrious. If you feel any hesitation
about coming in contact with them you shouldn't come, for they are sharp enough
to detect apathy or lurking repugnance, which would render any amount of
theoretical sympathy about worthless."
because he looked for signs that a slave was fully capable of full citizenship,
he found much to commend: "Think of their having reorganized and gone
deliberately to work here some weeks ago, without a white man near them,
preparing hundreds of acres for the new crop! The Irish wouldn't have done as
much in the same position."
Yesterday's blog raised the question of conflict between those who saw abandoned South Carolina plantation slaves as free labor to provide cheap cotton for northern markets and those who saw the same plantations as fertile ground for proving that slaves could be educated to full citizenship. The question of which goal was more important fills the pages of The Road to Frogmore.
Here's a preview of an early clash:
The Gideonites did not take long to realize that the cotton agents were at the root of many of their troubles. At the Oaks Plantation, Reynolds had installed a Mr. Whiting to oversee the cotton operations on the 500-acre plantation. When Pierce chose to establish his headquarters there, he and Whiting split the house between them. The Oaks, built in the late 1850s, featured a four-over-four floor plan, with the back rooms extending further to the sides, thus forming wings or a “T” shape house. A central hall with a staircase on either side made it possible for two households to share the building. And since the cookhouse and other out-buildings were separate from the main structure, each household could function independently with its own set of house servants.
But there the illusion of equality stopped. Whiting had arrived first, and he plundered the house of its best furniture and conveniences to make a comfortable residence for himself and his wife, leaving only the bare necessities for the Gideonites. At intervals, he also commandeered the front portico as a company store, at which the slaves working his cotton fields could exchange the scrip with which he paid them for items of food and clothing. The Gideonites could only watch in frustration as they saw the fieldhands being charged exorbitant prices for items they could have furnished more cheaply.
. . . .
Pierce blamed Colonel William Nobles, Reynolds’ assistant, for much of the massive corruption that accompanied the cotton-dealing policies. His evidence came from an informant, James Adrian Suydam, who ran one of the company stores. Pierce confronted him one day, hoping to find an acceptable explanation for the activities that had aroused his suspicions. Suydam proved anxious to talk, but his revelations were even more disturbing than Pierce had suspected.
“The cotton agents are all going back on their promises to pay the fieldhands,” he admitted. “There’s such a push to get that old cotton out and the fields replanted that drivers have been promising the ex-slaves almost anything to get them to work. They’re told that once the work is done, they’ll be paid a real salary, based on how many acres they’ve worked or how many hours they’ve put in. But when it comes time for payday, they don’t get more than a quarter of that amount in real coins.”
. . . .
Edward Pierce was now determined to take action and wrote a scathingly accusatory letter to General Hunter. On May 7th, Pierce traveled down to Hilton Head to complain in person to the military officials since the government failed to act on the matter. As he stepped onto the dock at Hilton Head, Nobles came rushing at him and began to punch him. Pierce fell to the ground under the onslaught, as Nobles shouted that Pierce was trying to run him out of the country like a dog. Soldiers managed to break up the fight, but not before Pierce had received a severe beating. The military police hustled Nobles onto the first ship headed north with orders from the commanding officer on Hilton Head that he not be allowed to return to the islands.
That one firing, however, did not solve the conflict of interest. Pierce recovered from his injuries under the skillful hands of Laura Towne, who managed to treat his wounds and listen to his frustrations at the same time. She worried about the scars the beating would leave. Not physical scars — those would heal with time. Laura was more concerned with the mental ones. She could sense that much of Pierce’s drive and enthusiasm had been dampened by the realization that the coetton agents were actively opposing the goals he had set for his teachers and managers.
Even when I'm not aware of it, all my books are connected in some way. Here's a snippet from Beyond All Price
, in which Nellie Chase, the heroine of that book, learns of the arrival of a band of teachers known as the Gideonites. The date is March, 1862. By early April of that year, Laura Towne, the heroine of The Road to Frogmore
, joined them.
“Colonel Reynolds and his staff will be moving
onto these plantations in the next weeks to set up shop as cotton agents. Where
necessary, they will organize work details to get the harvest picked. And they
will take charge of shipping the cotton crop north to be used in our own United
States cotton mills. Reynolds also has the authority to confiscate whatever he
needs to get the job done. That means he well may appear here in Beaufort and
take over some of the plantations we have been using for our own convenience.
Once the crops are in, he is to organize the slaves to replant.”
over our plantations? That’s unfair.”
can’t do that, can he?”
Leasure shook his head. “That’s how important that cotton crop is to the
financial stability of the United States government, gentlemen. I don’t think
you want to challenge the methods by which it gets into our hands.”
how is that a change for the better, Daniel? Isn’t it just exchanging one slave
driver for another?” Isabel was back on the attack.
hope not, my dear. Lincoln’s intention, I believe, is to turn the slaves into
independent farmers. But that will take training, as you yourself have pointed
out. The cotton agents will act quickly to salvage the current crop. Then they
can make plans, along with the Negro overseers, to turn the plantations into
self-governing smaller farms. The slaves will be given their own land, and the
agents will be there to guide them as they make the transition. It could be a
wait to hear how it works out,” Isabel said doubtfully.
may be more excited about the other new arrivals.”
they are. . .?”
Isabel and Nellie both leaned forward in anticipation. “Where from?”
I understand it, there are two groups. Some of them are members of the Boston
Educational Commission for Freedmen, and others are missionaries sponsored by
the American Missionary Society in New York. Nellie, you might remember a visit
we had from a gentleman by the name of Edward L. Pierce back in January.”
Sir. Was he the one who kept talking about the need for humanitarian aid
without ever defining what that might be?”
the one, and we laughed about his innocence at the time. But he returned home
and recruited some fifty-three men and women who are due here in early March.
From what I’ve been able to learn, there are all sorts of folks in his group—clerks,
doctors, divinity students, teachers, abolitionists. Their intention is to
prepare the slaves for full independence and citizenship.”
their goals interfere with those of the cotton agents?” Doctor Ludington asked.
But both Reynolds and Pierce have been sent here by Secretary Chase and at
Lincoln’s order. If all goes well, Reynolds’ people will concentrate on the
immediate employment needs of the Negroes, and Pierce and his sincere little
band will work on more long-range efforts to spread education among them.”
if the two groups don’t co-operate with your proposed division of labor, Daniel?”
we do our best to stay out of the way.”
Nellie Chase left South Carolina in July, 1862, so she was not around to see whether or not the Gideonites were successful. If you are curious, however, The Road to Frogmore picks up the story of Laura Towne and the Gideonites and answers the question of what will happen if the two groups cannot co-operate. I'll bring you an advance look at that issue tomorrow.