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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Southern History Is American History–Ignore It At Your Peril

The singer Ani De Franco was planning to hold an artistic retreat designed to “develop one’s singular creativity through lessons and workshops”.   Like all retreats it was to be a chance for likeminded people to get to know each other, share experiences, and enjoy good food and drink in attractive surroundings.

The problem is that she was planning to hold the retreat at the Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.  Depending on how you look at it, Nottoway is either the former home of slave owners, part of Southern history, a classic Antebellum building, or part of a unique American architectural patrimony.

It, of course, is all four; but the last three have been all but forgotten in the hue and cry over the first. The decision to hold a retreat in the very maw of the beast of slavery is traitorous to liberalism, say De Franco’s critics, ignorant and dismissive of the pain and torture inflicted at the hands of brutal overlords, and an immoral and indefensible act of treachery and insult.  De Franco gave in to the clamor, and cancelled the event. 

I have travelled and lived in the Deep South for over a decade.  I have always been fascinated by the South and have felt that unless I understood Southern history, I would never understand American history.  There are no more defining events in our past than slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction; and the legacy of all three can be seen today. The Civil War did not end in 1865 but only 100 years later in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act; and the struggle for full racial equality continues to this day.

Would slavery have collapsed under its own weight, and could the Civil War been avoided? Was it, as Time on the Cross, the seminal work on the economics of slavery suggested, a going concern?  Or would it have eventually withered and died under competition from the muscular, industrialized North? Was slavery always and completely punitive and inhuman? Or did most plantation owners treat slaves as valuable assets of capital and labor? Are Southerners the unrepentant racists depicted by Northern ‘progressives’, or are they still emerging from decades of self-isolation and external marginalization?

As part of my search for answers to these questions, I stayed in nearly 100 antebellum homes in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Most had a unique history to tell. I remember Rosswood Plantation most clearly, for the proprietor who was a descendant of the original owner had kept copies of his journals, diaries, and ledgers. With the care of an accountant every expenditure and return from the plantation had been recorded.  The names of slaves had been noted, and the costs of their clothing, housing, food, and medical care had been entered. Cotton yields were matched against labor, and productivity was calculated. 

After some further research, it was clear that that this particular plantation owner had treated his slaves well, for the amounts spent on necessities were far higher than many other similar plantations.  Yields and productivity were also higher, suggesting that the Rosswood business model of respectful and satisfactory treatment of slaves resulted in higher rewards.  This was the point of economists Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross.

Another important stay was at the Broxton Bridge Plantation in Ehrhardt, South Carolina.  An important battle of the Civil War had been fought at Broxton Bridge, and it was on the path of Sherman’s later march from Atlanta through South Carolina.  South Carolina had started the War, and Sherman’s policy was to burn it to the ground.  His troops lived off the land and then destroyed homes, crops, livestock, and equipment. The owner, G.D. Varn, a descendant of the original owners, showed us the bullet holes in the house, read from journals describing the pillage and destruction as seen by his great-great grandmother, and shared with us his own unreconstructed feelings about the Old South.

The proprietor of the Anchuca Mansion in Vicksburg also had family ties to the Civil War, and he read to us accounts of the Siege of Vicksburg.  For weeks Grant’s army besieged the town, destroying most of it.  Anchuca survived and the owners, thanks to a close relationship with Grant were spared. The Civil War never was more immediate than in that living room as the proprietor read from the journal, pointed to the sites of destroyed buildings, described the flight of refugees, and the scenes of final surrender.

The Rice Hope Plantation in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina is situated on the banks of the Cooper River in the Low Country. Indigo was the first crop to be grown in the region, but, although profitable, cultivation was abandoned because of the brutal work and inhuman conditions which resulted in high mortality.  Eventually rice cultivation took over, and for decades Monck’s Plantation was one of the wealthiest in the Low Country. The early irrigation schemes were ingenious, and the planters built a series of locks on the river which were closed when the tide came in, forcing salt water up towards the plantations, and opened to allow the fresh water to flow downstream and flood the rice fields at low tide.

Rice Hope Plantation Charleston South Carolina

At the Equen Plantation in the Mississippi Delta I heard accounts similar to the tale of Thomas Sutpen, the fictional protagonist in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalomwho left the  mountains of Virginia to build ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’ – 100 square miles of improved land cut out of the swamps.  Many plantation owners of the Upper South made the trek to Mississippi in the 1840s after overproduction of tobacco leached and destroyed their lands.  Accounts of these overland voyages – snakes, Indians, disease, impossible climate and terrain – were not unlike those of early settlers of the West. 

Most of these old plantation homes were near small towns, and on trips through the Delta from Memphis to Vicksburg, I visited Indianola, Cleveland, Yazoo City, Greenwood, and Belzoni.  There I had a chance to talk with older residents who had heard stories of the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the antebellum period from their grandparents.  I heard stories about town life, balls and parades, coming to market, and pageantry.  Many people had photographs from the late 19th century, and most towns had historical museums which chronicled life during the post-war and early 20th century period.

Although it was much harder to get people to talk about the Civil Rights era, especially to a Northerner, most people opened up, and I heard the story from a distinctly Southern perspective; and I began to piece together the cultural history of slavery, the War, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights – a continuum of peace, disruption, peace, and disruption.  From a Northern point of view, the South went from brutality, to treachery, to slaughter, to brutality, to re-enslavement, and to brutality again; but Southerners insist on Northern aggression, occupation, their own brutality, imposition, unwanted and unwarranted federal intervention, and harsh, punitive laws.  History always has at least two sides.

Many small towns in the Delta are struggling but have not given up.  Helena, Arkansas is trying to build on its yearly Blues Festival to become a center for musicologists and African American historians.  Older residents show me photographs of a thriving town, wealthy thanks to revenues from its Mississippi River port and from the wholesaling and transshipment of cotton.  They are trying to move on, they say, but the future is dim.

Another town in Louisiana, Rodney, was once a thriving port city also on the Mississippi; but the River changed course and slowly but surely took the city.  All that remains are an old warehouse, an abandoned Episcopal Church, and an abandoned hardware store.  There are only a few people who have stayed, and have earned a living from hunters who camp in Rodney during duck season.

History was not the only reason I travelled to the Deep South.  The plantation homes where I stayed were magnificently restored, appointed with period furniture, and rebuilt and furnished with care and respect for history and tradition. Elegant Empire furniture made in New Orleans or Europe was in every room; ornate gilt mirrors from France in formal dining rooms.  Chandeliers from Paris, rugs from Persia, sconces and moldings from Italy.  They were spectacular.

They – and plantation life – are part of American history.  If there was grandeur and opulence in the 19th century mansions of the great industrialists of the North – Getty, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt – there was even more in those of the antebellum South.  Staying in either gives a glimpse into a very privileged and small class of Americans to be sure; but an important one.

Newport ‘Cottage’

All of which leads me to the howls over Ani De Franco and her retreat at Nottaway Plantation. Although she and her colleagues might have had little interest in antebellum life, Southern history, and the trajectory of Southern life, why was it wrong to stay at Nottoway? Was it because a group of Hollywood types would revel without the proper respect or reverence?  Does motive matter?  Are these magnificent antebellum homes forever off the list of approved locations?  How long will it take for ‘progressive’ guilt to finally be expunged?

It is hardly worth mentioning that if one is to boycott Southern antebellum homes because of their link to slavery, then one should certainly boycott the Pyramids of Egypt, built with thousands of slaves who died by the hundreds in brutal conditions.  Or the Taj Mahal built by the brutal and cruel Emperor Shah Jahan.

One should avoid the Capitol Building in Washington, built in part with slave labor; and never walk on the C&O Canal, its towpath and locks built with slave and indentured labor.  One should certainly not visit Angola, Gambia, or Sierra Leone where African slavers provided human capital to Arab middlemen who then traded with European businessmen.  The Great Wall of China was not built by well-paid, well-treated in the First Dynasty of  Qin Shi Huang but by slaves, so visits there should be off-limits. The great cathedrals of Europe were built by serfs, another name for European slaves.

Visits to such historical sites can be informative, as my many trips South were; illustrative of persistent human social characteristics, such as slavery; or just plain enjoyable.  For whatever reasons they are part of our collective past and should be treated as such.

There is virtually no place on earth that doesn’t have some vestige of a nasty past.. Germany started two world wars that killed millions. The Japanese brutally occupied Manchuria and then provoked the Pacific World War.   Mao and Stalin were responsible for even more deaths.  France was cowardly complicit in the deportation of Jews during WWII. Thomas Jefferson was in favor of an Indian removal policy, clearing the land east of the Mississippi for white settlers.

Manifest Destiny was a movement to expand the United States at all costs.  American military heroes, like Andrew Jackson, was instrumental in this policy, turned against his Indian partners in the War of 1812 and was no fan of indigenous Americans. Do we renounce our citizenship and move to Tahiti?

Intolerant hatred for the South and all things Southern persists among Northern ‘progressive’ circles today.  I was called a traitor, an immoral interloper, and a cultural reprobate for even setting foot in Mississippi. If these ‘progressives’ and self-appointed defenders of decency and propriety could have their way, they would reenact the Reconstruction of the Radical Republicans – bring the South once again to its knees.  Boycott the South!

I have been a longtime defender of the South in the North.  I have never defended slavery, nor the brutality of the Civil Rights era, or the racism that persists today.  I only plead for a tolerant examination of the South – why it is what it is, how it has been the most important player in American history, where it is going, and how its legacy cannot be ignored when considering the urban ghettoes of Washington, Detroit, or Newark.

The South has rejoined the United States.   Wasn’t that what Lincoln wanted?

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