News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Rediscovering Black History

It's always been here; it's just been buried

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History, like theology, inspires the passions and genius of some, the scorn and ridicule of others. Also like theology, history is never concluded. It periodically must be re-imagined, reconstructed, and rewritten to keep it fresh and relevant.

Anyone who thinks that history and theology are closed books clearly understands neither. Modern Christians are embarrassed by their 19th-century white southern counterparts who justified the institution of slavery with chapter and verse from the Bible. White southerners had to rationalize the peculiar institution; their society and economy were built on it.

White southerners have also rationalized a lot of history over the centuries. Anyone raised in South Carolina a few decades ago was exposed to the history books of Mary C. Simms Oliphant. This little woman — the granddaughter of poet and southern apologist William Gilmore Simms — held the franchise on the South Carolina history textbooks used in state public schools from the 1920s to the 1980s.

In her books, Oliphant managed to recount the story of South Carolina from 1670 to the time of Strom Thurmond with barely a mention of black people or slavery. In a state that was built on the labor of black people, a state whose politics and culture have been defined by the need to control the black population, Oliphant managed to reduce that population to a handful of references.

But sometimes change has to come — even in South Carolina.

"You can almost feel something bubbling under the surface," Simon Lewis said in an interview last week. Lewis is director of the Program in Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW), and his antennae are more sensitive than most.

CLAW is a group of scholars seeking to rediscover the Charleston of the 16th and 17th centuries before it was redefined by southern politics and regionalism. They are also trying to rediscover the role of black people in this city at a time when they were the majority and connected to the wider world by commerce and culture.

Charleston 200 years ago was a great spoke in the wheel of Atlantic commerce that reached from Northeastern port cities to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, Lewis said. It was a cosmopolitan and multinational city, looking outward to the wider world. One of its chief imports was African slaves. It is estimated that 40 percent of all slaves brought into the United States came through the port of Charleston.

The rise of the abolitionist movement — in Britain and the northern U.S. — began to alter Charleston's place in the world and the place of black people in Charleston, Lewis said. Faced with increasingly hostile attitudes toward slavery, Charleston began to withdraw from the wider world; it began to look inward. The city's role in the opening of the Civil War cemented its place as a quintessentially "southern" city. It remained southern and provincial until recent decades when it once again emerged as an important international port.

At the same time Charleston was redefining itself, it was redefining black people. White people's fear of abolition led to the ideology of racism and the "science" of racism in an effort to justify slavery. Lewis quoted cultural historian Nancy Stepan: "As the battle for abolition was being won, the battle against racism was being lost."

The ideology of racism — which permeated every niche and crevice of white society — effectively dehumanized black people. Not only were they stripped of all legal rights and protections, they were effectively written out of history. This "whites only" view of history is what generations of southerners — black and white — have been taught in public schools and public celebrations.

But today that is changing. Lewis sees the changes in many ways, large and small. He sees it in the ceremony two weeks ago to dedicate the new African-American Cemetery Memorial on the College of Charleston campus. He sees it in the comment in Gov. Mark Sanford's recent State of the State address that it is time for South Carolinians to come to terms with the past. He sees it in the recent biracial family reunion at historic Drayton Hall plantation and in the opening of the Old Slave Mart Museum downtown.

There are a hundred aphorisms and epigrams to define history. I like Edmund Burke's: "History is a pact between the dead, the living and the yet unborn."

It is our responsibility to be faithful to one another and to that pact. We can do that only by keeping our minds and hearts open to the possibilities and by understanding that the final word will never be written.

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