Reconciling Race, Slavery, and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy

Following Dylann Roof’s use of a self-compiled archive of Charleston’s enslaved past to justify his June 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the nation has been forced to address its difficult past with slavery and its destruction during the Civil War. Apart from contributions to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, #CharlestonSyllabus, and scholarly blogs, many historians have conceded the debate to journalists and other fields more adept at quickly addressing contemporary issues in book-length form.  Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, therefore, is a timely, well-researched, and deftly argued intervention with both scholarly and public importance.

denmark vesey's garden cover

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, professors of history at California State University, Fresno, tackled the difficult, long history of slavery and memory in Charleston, SC as the entry point of their study.  This local case study provides a lens for understanding the Charleston Massacre and the debates over how the nation should remember slavery and deal with the Lost Cause commemorative landscape created at the turn of the twentieth century.  The final product rises to level of an essential text that will inform the future directions of southern studies, tourism studies, and scholarship on the memory of slavery and even the Civil War.

In short, Kytle and Roberts argue: “Charleston’s long fight over how slavery should be remembered – as an incidental but comforting fairy tale of faithful slaves and doting masters, or as a shocking nightmare that lies at the core of our national identity – provides an unparalleled window into a conversation that involves all Americans” (11). And, as the events since June 17, 2015 have shown, especially in the 2016 Presidential election and Charlottesville, Virginia, “it is a conversation that is far from over” (11). Competing memories of the past continue to justify political ideologies and divide Americans.

Organized in four major sections, the prelude offers an unvarnished view of the institution before it became a figment of reality by white Charlestonians and tourists at the turn of the twentieth century. African Americans, on the other hand, employed memory for less nefarious reasons. Unlike white Charlestonians, they used the city’s slave past to advance a more inclusive democratic society. Together, Kytle and Roberts masterfully show how white and black memory competed for dominance and transformed the identity and politics of Charleston since the Civil War. The expanded chronology allows the authors to reveal the ebbs and flow of collective memory, its role in shaping identity politics, and its historic and contemporary use in the city.

One of the work’s most important contributions is that African Americans and their white allies invested in the Reconstruction project shaped the original dominant memory in Charleston. Through the year-long public celebration of slavery’s demise, parades, and Reconstruction-era governments, black Charlestonians constructed a new racially-inclusive city and state. Despite the actions of some vocal white elite women, slavery apologists were initially “outnumbered and outgunned” (61). Indeed, Lost Cause memory and not Emancipationist memory was the counter-memory aimed at retaking control of the city’s politics.

Fig-11-Fort-Sumter-Flag-Raising-LOC

The hold of African Americans’ emancipationist memory diminished with the relocation of Charleston Union remains to national cemeteries. Although Decoration Day events no longer occurred, the annual festival calendar continued with public celebrations of January 1, July 4, and a few additional days by the 1870s. In the aftermath of “Redemption,” these events, however, now competed with Confederate Decoration Day celebrations, veteran organizations, and public addresses by members of the Survivors’ Association of South Carolina and the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston.  Through meticulous research and compelling writing, Kytle and Roberts effectively show that implementing the Lost Cause memory required both dismantling Reconstruction-era gains and “necessitated a good measure of willful forgetting” (82).

The authors’ examination of the two Calhoun monuments demonstrates that the implementation process of the Lost Cause memory did not occur without protest and pushback. From his funeral to the replacement of the first monument to the former Vice President and Senator, the memory of John C. Calhoun was fraught among white Charlestonians and actively challenged by black Charlestonians. Although the first dedication buried Calhoun’s ties to slavery, African Americans’ vandalism contributed to the replacement of the first monument with a taller Calhoun statue less than a decade later. The timing of the second statue marked the emergence of Jim Crow segregation. Both the statue and the new political order, according to the Kytle and Roberts, “were intended to fortify the new barriers and push blacks down to where they supposedly belong” (113).

The Jim Crow era transformed the city from the “Cradle of the Confederacy into a cradle of the Lost Cause” (114). Groups such as the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association, Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston, and Survivors’ Association of Charleston organized events, erected monuments, revised school curricula with the addition of textbooks endorsed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and embraced the Lost Cause commemorative traditions of the late nineteenth century. In effect, city officials, veterans, elite white women, archivists, and the Charleston News and Courier editor and staff reshaped the Lost Cause from a counter-memory to the master narrative and transformed previous sites of African American memory into white-only public spaces. This transformation entailed the erasure of the Martyrs of the Race Course cemetery and the creation of Hampton Park as its replacement. Named after Wade Hampton III, a former Confederate officer and state Governor, the park embodied the new white supremacist regime in Charleston.

Moreover, tourism aided white Charlestonians’ dominance in the cultural memory wars for most of the twentieth century. The lack of significant industrial transformation and prevalence of old homes made Charleston a magnet for tourism in the twentieth century and facilitated the cementing of the Lost Cause narrative into the city landscape. Kytle and Roberts do not sugarcoat the absurdity in which white Charlestonians promoted an imagined version of benevolent slavery, slave spirituals, and Gullah culture.  Society for the Preservation of Spirituals and other white groups appropriated the slave spiritual for tourism and forged an identity in which they and not African Americans were the true arbiters of this soundscape.  The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings rescued dilapidated buildings, contributed to the peninsula’s rigid segregated geography by removing African Americans, and allowed for the presentation of whitewashed histories to almost exclusively white audiences.  Popular guidebooks rarely included sites of African American memory. White elites and officials dismissed WPA interviews conducted by an African American interviewer as lies and propaganda. More importantly, the licensing of tour guides purposefully excluded black history for decades.  These individuals and organizations willingly manipulated a version of the slavery for tourist consumption and the dollars generated for local coffers. The legacy of the Jim Crow era continues to influence the city. Sanitized antebellum tours and guidebooks remain readily available.

The worst aspects of slavery remained taboo in the new, tourist-driven landscape.  Officials and city elite actively downplayed and to some extent developed a form of amnesia surrounding the slave trade. Old Slave Mart Museum proved to be the exception. Even here, however, Miriam B. Wilson, the resourceful one-woman force behind the museum, and her support of the Jim Crow regime and whitewashing of slave sales garnered reluctant toleration by white Charlestonians and active boycotts by African Americans.

Fig-46-Elijah-Green3

African American memory does not get short shrift within the latter sections of Denmark Vesey’s Garden, making this book stand apart from many similar books on memory. Kytle and Roberts introduces readers to an array of individuals who challenged the dominant white Charlestonian memory in public and private spaces, classrooms, letters to the editors, parades, oral histories, and other vernacular cultural forms amid Jim Crow segregation. The authors convincingly reveal that black Charlestonians neither cosigned onto the national reconciliationist impulse enshrined in the tourist-driven landscape nor completely forgot their memories of the slave past as desired by white Charlestonians.

The Civil Rights Movement and the rise of a substantive black tourist culture ushered the return of a more inclusive narrative that incorporated African American memory. Interestingly, Charleston’s overreliance on the tourist industry facilitated the creation of behind-the-big-house tours at area plantations, revised National Park Service interpretations of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, and the purchase of the Old Slave Mart Museum and McLeod Plantation by the city and the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission respectively. Indeed, tourism has shaped the complex ways in which Charlestonians, white and black, have remembered and at times purposefully forgotten the totality of its slave past.

Yet, tourism cannot resolve all issues.  Kytle and Roberts astutely point out the persistence of willful docents who ignore the revised scripts and the tours of the antebellum homes occurring without any discussion of slave housing and outbuildings unless probed. The industry remains flexible and available to tourists desiring either a whitewashed or more-inclusive cultural memory of slavery.

In their conclusion, Kytle and Roberts return to the public memory of the individual at the center of their work’s title. Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park is emblematic of the work’s narrative arc, compellingly told by the authors.  Moving from a site of the Martyrs of the Race Course to a white-only public space, the Hampton Park now features a statue of the African American antebellum rebel overlooking a lush green space. The park has come full circle. Following the Charleston Massacre, as Kytle and Roberts show in their afterword, memory of slavery remains a tool of empowerment and still inspires white resistance, and a powerful force in shaping local, state, and national politics.  It should not take the “murder of nine people to inch us closer,” the authors say, but the complex and evolving history of slavery and memory in Charleston offers a model to understand how memory has and can continue to shift (349).

Charleston’s complex history over its slave past, as Kytle and Roberts have compellingly argued, should be a template for institutions, municipalities, and scholars alike exploring issues of reconciling difficult racial pasts. While readers may have difficulty keeping track of the acronyms for the multitude of Charlestonian organizations presented, Denmark Vesey’s Garden is suitable for both academic and non-academic audiences.  It is a worthy addition to any library, Charleston-area gift shop, undergraduate classroom, and graduate seminar.

Hilary Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016).  She is currently at work on a second book manuscript examining how everyday African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War.

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