"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Here's the last half of yesterday's talk at the Hilton Head Library. Headed back to Tennessee soon, so postings will be scarce until next week. If you want to hear more about Frogmore, take a look at the dedicated website at http://theroadtofrogmore.co It has lots of pictures of the real characters and places.
Just who were the first abolitionists in South Carolina?
Mansfield French was the leader of the first arrivals. An evangelical Methodist preacher, noted for
founding a school for well-to-do free blacks in Ohio, he was a charismatic speaker but a total
airhead when it came to money matters. Pierce entrusted him with all the funds
to pay teachers and purchase supplies.
Eventually he was tried for embezzlement, but all they ever proved was
gross mismanagement. Money simply melted in his hands.
Austa French, his wife, was an opera singer and the mother
of 7 children, all of whom she sent off to boarding school so that she could
get on with her life. She came to South
Carolina to write a book about the evils of slavery, and spend all of her time
interviewing slaves about the atrocities they had suffered. As soon as she had gathered enough ammunition
for a book, she went back to New York.
Susan Walker was a brilliant mathematician, a wealthy
socialite, and the friend of senators congressmen and Lincoln’s cabinet
officers. She begged to go along with
the abolitionists so she could report back to Chase. Unfortunately, she hated dirt and manual
labor. When she discovered the very
primitive conditions under which she was expected to live, she decided she had
made a mistake. She refused to set foot
in a slave cabin until it was cleaned, would eat food only if she had not seen
how it was cooked, and could not figure out what to do when she was assigned to
do the laundry. She left after only a
couple of months.
Several young Quakers volunteered for abolitionist duty
because their religion would not let them enlist in the army. But much like Susan Walker, they had no idea
how do do the tasks that were given to them.
One, Richard Soule, accidentally fed expensive cotton seed to the
livestock on the plantation to which he was assigned. Another, Charles Ware, followed his slaves to
the fields every morning just to write down the songs they sang while they
hoed. None of them knew anything about raising cotton.
Nelly Winsor and Harriet
Ware were schoolteachers, but they refused to hold classes if the students
arrived dirty. They would send them home
to take baths and put on clean clothes. Of
course, the children had only one set of clothes and no access to water except for the mucky swamps, so they
were at a standoff, and little teaching went on.
Edward Pierce was a wealthy economist who came along to
prove that a plantation run by its owner and worked by paid labor would be more
profitable than the traditional pattern of slaves and slave driver. But to prove his point, he had to buy up land
and pay his workers before he had made any profit at all. Eventually he took on several investors and
recouped his losses, only to be accused of exploiting the slaves who should
have been allowed to purchase the land.
Charlotte Forten was a mulatto, a free Philadelphia black,
who came to teach her people. But “her
people” refused to recognize her. They
called her that “brown gal” and rejected her because she lived with the other
white teachers instead of with them. She violated their understanding of class.
Only one out of the whole group of abolitionists managed to
find a way to work with the slaves and give them the kind of help they
needed. Laura Towne was a 38-year–old
spinster who had never fit in with the society in which she had been raised. She didn’t want to be a wife and mother; she
preferred to live with another woman with whom she had formed a close
relationship. She studied medicine in
the years before women could become doctors. She was a Unitarian, looked down
upon by Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians alike because though religion
should be private and free from doctrine. And of course she was an outspoken
abolitionist when women were expected to hold no political views, or at least
not expected to speak out about them. She was a misfit, but because of that,
she understood the problems the slaves faced.
Laura and her freed slaves needed each other. When the other abolitionists went home and
moved on to the next great issue, Laura
Towne stayed on St. Helena Island for 40 years, teaching and caring for the
people she had come to see as her own.
Here's the first half of the lecture I delivered today at the Hilton Head Library. We had another great audience, full of questions and eager to read the book. Thanks, everyone.
This country’s first experiment with the abolition of slavery began right here on
Hilton Head Island in 1861. The federal
government put together an expedition to capture a safe harbor to be used by
their blockading ships. At the end of
October, 1861, 88 ships, carrying 12 regiments (12,000 soldiers), sailed for
the coastline of South Carolina. In a terribly one-sided battle, they destroyed
two confederate forts, manned by a total of 200 men equipped with 7 guns. From Charleston, General Robert E. Lee sent
word that the Low Country of South Carolina could not be defended. Those left out of the original 200 men took
flight and headed for the safety of Charleston.
Right behind them were the white plantation owners who now had no one to
defend their lives and property.
Left behind were some
10,000 slaves who had never been off their respective plantations. They had no
one to direct their labor, no one to supply their usual food allowances and
clothing allotments, no one to treat their illnesses or help them survive on
islands now in the hands of Yankees.
The soldiers who had occupied the islands knew nothing about
actual slavery or its conditions. In
letters from those soldiers, we find complaint after complaint that went
something like this. They had come to
free the slaves. They had done so. Now why didn’t the slaves go on and
leave? And of course, the slaves did not
understand the question. Where were they
supposed to go? And how would they get there?
Their little cabins weren’t much but they were home. Their families had lived there for
generations. They didn’t want to
leave. But they did want someone to take
care of them, because someone always had
provided for their simple needs .
What was worse, no one in the Union army had expected to
find freed slaves there, and there were no plans for dealing with them. Frantic letters flew back and forth to
Washington DC. “We have 10,000 blacks,
ill, hungry, and helpless, unable to care for themselves? What are we to
do?” Lincoln had a quick answer. He turned to his Secretary of the Treasury,
Salmon P. Chase, and said, “Handle it.”
Chase responded by hiring two gentlemen – William Reynolds
to take charge of gathering the cotton crops and administering the plantations
and Edward Pierce to provide humanitarian aid for the slaves. The cotton agents and their adventures would
make a story on their own, but I want to concentrate on the Abolitionists hired
by Pierce to do “something” about the slaves themselves.
To this day, when you try to find out what the abolitionists
wanted, there’s only a single answer – to do away with all slavery. But nowhere will you find a clear explanation
of what they thought would happen to the slaves. There were no plans. They were an odd bunch
from the beginning, some 75-80 volunteers who for one reason or another were
free to uproot their lives and travel into a war zone to provide for the needs of 10,000 slaves. Looking at some of their personalities will
demonstrate the flaws in the abolitionist goals. We'll do that tomorrow.
This is the second half of yesterday's talk at the St. Helena Library.
So how did a woman who refused to fit in manage to leave a
legacy of changing her world? Well, let’s look at her personal quirks from a
different angle. While Laura Towne was not
ever going to find a real home in Philadelphia, the Low Country of South
Carolina became her natural habitat.
The teachers and abolitionists who took part in what was
called the Port Royal Experiment were forced into some very strange living
arrangements as they settled into abandoned plantations. There were a few married couples among them,
and a couple of brother-sister groups, but for the most part, they were all
single and needed to share accommodations, both for safety and in order to
provide all the varied services they wanted to offer to the newly freed
slaves. So no one regarded Laura and her
life-long companion, Ellen Murray, as anything other than natural housemates. As time went by Laura and Ellen were able to
purchase a small house they could call their own, and they lived together as a
family with combined resources without raising a single eyebrow.
Laura’s brand of homeopathic medicine was exactly what the
freed slaves needed. They often had
their own remedies for illnesses, but like most people, they wanted to be cared
for, and Laura offered that. One slave
woman remarked that Laura could make you feel better just by walking into a
room. Her experiments with homeopathic remedies also made her more open to
considering alternate forms of medicine. She was shocked the first time she
found a slave’s leg wound covered in
honey. But when she realized that it was
healing with no sign of infection, she was willing to adopt the use of honey as
one of her remedies. Because she was caring and non-critical, the slaves
accepted her ministrations but rejected traditional doctors.
Similarly, Laura’s Unitarian faith made her more accepting
of the slave traditions. She delighted
in the Shout, a quasi-religious celebration that gave slaves a chance to
express the feelings they had to keep hidden most of the time. She did not
demand that her patients and students follow her own brand of religion, as so
many of the missionaries did. She urged
open worship services and actively worked to get rid of any pastor who arrived
with notions of converting the slaves to his own peculiar brand of religion.
It was only natural that people who had been slaves all
their lives would welcome an abolitionist who demanded getting rid of all forms
of slavery. But Laura went further than that. She strongly believed what others only
preached. Every abolitionist praised
freedom and equality, but all too often, they meant that slaves had freedom to
do as they were told and that they were equal to each other but not to their betters.
Laura had a strong belief that if a black child received the same education as
a white child, they would be equal in every way. Others wanted to teach the former slaves how
to be cleaner, how to raise more cotton, or how to run a small shop or create
crafts. Laura offered them composition,
algebra, history, and geography, and they children flocked to her schools.
In short, the very qualities that had kept Laura from
fitting into Philadelphia’s high society were the qualities that former slaves
could value. And that, perhaps, is what
allows such a woman to become a world-changer.
She remained true to her core beliefs and used them for the betterment
of those around her.
Thanks to all the great folks who showed up at the St. Helena Library today to hear me chat about Laura Towne. Here's a more formal account of what we talked about.
For all of her adult life (and much of her childhood as
well), Laura Towne had known that she did not fit in with the society around
her. If someone had told her that in 150
years she would be touted as an example of a woman who made a permanent
difference in the world, she would not have believed it. Nor would she have believed that anyone would
ever write a book about her life. She
knew she was different; she just didn’t know that being different was going to
make her important. I see her as an example of how women can change their
world. She deserves to be honored during
Women’s History Month. Here’s why.
Laura’s world demanded that women fulfill one of two roles
in society. She could either marry and
become a dutiful wife and doting mother, or she could remain in the family home
as the caretaker of her parents, the support of her brothers and sisters, the
family anchor. Laura wanted no part of either one. She could not bring herself to be subordinate
to a man, especially one who was not as intelligent or capable as she was. She loved children but wanted to encourage
them to flee the nest, not hover over them as protector. Her mother died when
she was nine, her father when she was in her early twenties, so there was no
need to take on the role of caregiver.
And she had no interest in encouraging her siblings to lean on her any
more than they already did. She cherished a close friendship with another woman
whom she considered her equal in every way.
She dreamed of sharing their lives, but knew that while Philadelphia
society might allow two women to live together, they would never give their
relationship the status of family. She thought she would always live a solitary
existence, without the bonds of love and affection that sustained other people.
Laura wanted a career, even though she knew that there were
few career options open to her. She
petitioned for years to be allowed to attend medical school, and finally found
admission in Philadelphia’s first medical school for women. There she was allowed to attend academic
classes and lectures, but barred from any clinical experience on the grounds
that women should never see the body of a man other than their husbands or
children. Frustrated with the lack of contact with patients, she gave up her
pursuit of a medical degree and turned to the study of homeopathic medicine,
which put her even further outside the boundaries of acceptable careers. Most trained
doctors looked down on homeopathy as quackery, but Laura found much to
like. It allowed her to be in close
contact with her patients; treating them as individuals, not cases; offering comfort and palliative care;
and avoiding the harshness of dangerous medicines, quick amputation, or
Laura was a non-conformist when it came to religion,
too. In a city involved with evangelism
in all its many forms, as well as a city that had been founded by Quakers,
Laura was a Unitarian. What was that? The question bothered other people, too. Unitarians believed in one God. Only one, not a Trinity, which seemed to make
them non-Christians. They disliked
dogma, official church doctrine, and any and creeds. They believed religion should be a quiet and
private affair. They were ethical and
reasonable, believers in free will, and flexible in their religious
observances. They were particularly
irritating to traditional Christians because they denied the divinity of Jesus
while following his teachings more closely than most Christians did.
Finally, there was the matter of politics. Women did not have the right to vote and were not expected to have political
opinions. They certainly were not
expected to speak out about their views. But Laura was an abolitionist, and an
outspoken one at that. She was not
afraid to express her hatred of slavery and demanded equality for all people,
including women. Abolitionists were
usually northerners, but they were no more popular in the north they were in
the south. Workers feared an influx of
free blacks would take away their jobs, while the wealthy feared attacks from
those who had much less than they did. Laura the abolitionist was one of a very
few uppity women who were hated by nearly everyone.
I'll post the second half of the talk tomorrow, so please come back then.
only two real holidays, both of them commonly associated with the color
green. The first day of Spring comes in
March, and we have every reason to expect the world to turn green. In Memphis, though, you can't count on
that. Statistically, it is as likely to
snow on March 20 as on any day of winter.
If the neighborhood
does not turn not white from snow in March, the Bradford pear trees will
produce enough white blossoms to make it look like snowfall. At the same time,
the wonderful old post oaks in the south grow long fuzzy catkins in the Spring,
and they are capable of producing enough pollen paint your car yellow if you
park under one. Green will simply have to wait.
dependable signs of Spring are the migrations.
Our little juncos and red-winged blackbirds will be heading north, along
with those other snow-birds, the folks from along the U. S./Canada border, who
have been keeping warm in Florida all winter. You'll see them on the interstate,
chugging along in their overloaded motor homes.
Another migration path leads south in March – northern college students
on Spring Break. You'll want to avoid
them on the highways, too.
There will be a vertical migration as well. Do you want to know how close Spring really
is? Check to see how far down in the
dirt you have to dig to find an earthworm.
Their migrations may only cover a distance of six inches or so, but when
they start to stick their wormy little heads up in your garden, Spring is definitely
This yea r I’m not taking any chances. We're in in South Carolina, which seems like cheating a
bit. Yes, the first day of Spring will
be sunny and warm. But then every day
this week has been sunny and warm. I
hope you’re warm and sunny, too, wherever you are. But if you’re facing another blizzard, think
about all those poor little worms huddled underground, just like you. And remember, these are the days you’ll long
for in August!