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Two new books look at race in South Carolina

A Feast of History

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"As a general thing, the Southerner is burdened by his unhappy past; he doesn't understand it, and he finds it hard to accept. The white Southerner is further confused by the myth of a splendid past, a myth woven during the dark decades from 1865 to 1900 ... According to this myth, the South was once a complete, perhaps a perfect creation, envied by the North and out of envy attacked, defeated, and crippled. The trouble with this picture is that it is not so." —James McBride Dabbs

In the South, nothing is as revered or as misunderstood as history, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in South Carolina. And no part of our history is as distorted and concealed as the subject of race.

For generations, race was a kind of intellectual taboo in the South, virtually ignored by popular historians in much the same way that mainstream fiction writers (i.e., Margaret Mitchell, Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Dixon) could only depict blacks in caricature. Most whites were simply unable to deal straightforwardly with black people or with the region's complicated racial past.

Many things changed with the advent of the civil rights movement. One of them was the writing of southern history that was as complex and nuanced as the people who lived it. In the past 40 years, we have seen every aspect of race relations explicated in popular histories, including the sexual and familial relationships between blacks and whites.

Two new books by Charleston-area historians add to this expanding shelf of histories, and both deal with race in South Carolina.

Jack Bass has teamed up with W. Scott Poole, his colleague at the College of Charleston, to produce The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina (USC Press), which is an updating of his 1972 classic, Porgy Comes Home. Damon L. Fordham follows up last year's True Stories of Black South Carolina with Voices of Black South Carolina: Legend and Legacy (History Press).

Bass and Fordham come at the subject of race in South Carolina from different directions — in part, perhaps, because Bass is white and Fordham is black — but they manage to cover much of the same ground and arrive at similar conclusions.

Bass' narrative follows the long arc of history from the founding of the Carolina colony in 1670 into the 21st century. Throughout the story, his eye never wanders far from the crucial issue: how the presence of blacks and whites has shaped the politics, culture, and economy of this little state.

He minces no words in describing how the black majority shaped the white consciousness. The Stono Rebellion of 1739 "increased white fears of the black majority."

"Many scholars view the Stono Rebellion as a significant turning point in South Carolina history," Bass writes. "The 'Negro Act' of 1740 significantly narrowed the lives of African slaves while encouraging white planters to follow a policy that combined paternalism and repression. This method of control characterized white supremacy in South Carolina into the mid-twentieth century.

"Slavery led to the Civil War, total defeat, and economic devastation," he writes. "The experience led to the myths of Reconstruction and the romanticism of the Lost Cause."

Fordham takes a more piecemeal approach, focusing on some 20 vignettes and biographies of black people throughout South Carolina history. One of them makes an interesting and personal point for me. Fordham describes the 1898 Phoenix Massacre of Greenwood County in which a white mob of more than 100 terrorized blacks for trying to vote, murdering seven. One witness to the terror and the way it affected his parents and his community was four-year-old Benjamin Mays. Mays went on to a career of scholarship and ministry as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In his autobiography Mays wrote, "I hoped that some day I would be able to do something about a situation that had shadowed my early years and had killed the spirit of all too many of my people."

At Morehouse College, Mays became a forceful advocate for equity and civil rights. There he met and mentored a young theology student named Martin Luther King Jr., who would go on to change the world.

My parents grew up in Greenwood County. I spent countless days there as a child and young adult, listening to stories and local history, but never did I hear the story of the Phoenix Massacre. It's just one more piece of South Carolina's lost history, which scholars like Fordham and Bass have brought to light in their respective books.

Both authors close on a note of cautionary optimism, reminding readers that we may learn from the past, but we can never escape it.

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