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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

March 2013

The Trouble with Abolitionists

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.

The Port Royal Experiment

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.

Laura Towne: Answer to a Slave's Prayer

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.
 

Laura Towne: Misfit

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 blood-letting.
 
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.
 

Is It Spring Yet?


 
            March has 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.

            The most 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 here.

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!