The Environmental Roots of Jim Crow in Coastal South Carolina

Editor’s note: This is the first of a pair of posts on the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry. Stay tuned for Caroline’s second piece, which will explore how Black South Carolinians during Jim Crow pushed against this narrative.

“In full flower,” raved James Henry Rice, Lowcountry rice cultivation “was the wonder and envy of mankind.” Rice, a white South Carolina naturalist whose family had once enslaved dozens of African Americans at a forced labor camp near Georgetown, South Carolina, simultaneously lamented the decrease of his family’s wealth, the erosion of Lowcountry rice cultivation, and, by implication, the emancipation of African Americans. In the 1920s, for his popular column on the Lowcountry in The State newspaper, he elaborated in prose so florid that it would have made Margaret Mitchell of Gone with the Wind envious:

“[…] even in its ruins it appeals alike to the cynic and the historian. Youth and beauty, splendor and power, combined with great wealth and lives of chivalric lustre, have always interested the human race and it is likely they always will. The rice planter is no more, but what he gave to civilization in grace and beauty of living, with so many elements that go to form the man of full stature and the splendid ruin of his past, these things will not perish, but will live as long as the coastal region harks back to imperishable glory.”[1]

Rice’s deluded re-imagining of Lowcountry rice cultivation muted the harsh conditions and particular stringencies of enslaved labor in the region’s rice fields. This was a deliberate act, though not a unique one. Elizabeth Allston Pringle, the daughter of former South Carolina governor Robert F. W. Allston who held 630 African Americans enslaved in Georgetown County at the dawn of the Civil War, operated the remnants of the family’s rice labor camp in the postwar decades and was deeply simpatico with Rice’s ideas. Though other wealthy white South Carolinians had spun similar narratives in the decades since the end of the Civil War, Rice and Pringle were two of the most prominent voices advocating for the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry.

The history of Lost Cause mythology, in which white southerners enshrined the nobility of the Confederacy and slavery to justify their post-war creation of the racist regimes of Jim Crow, is well-trod ground by dozens of historians. Wealthy white South Carolinians like Pringle and Rice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included an additional element that connected environmental control of the Lowcountry with white supremacy. In the Lowcountry, the emergence of Jim Crow was as much an environmental phenomenon as a political one. White supremacists’ drive to destroy the political gains of Reconstruction was matched by their desire to control both Black labor and coastal landscapes. But as African Americans migrated away from the Lowcountry, as white supremacists violently seized political power in the region, and as rice cultivation diminished, the white elite turned their attention from the material to the memorial, forging a narrative about the beauty of Lowcountry rice cultivation that cast a glossy veil of moonlight and magnolias over the brutalities of slavery. The Lost Cause of the Lowcountry, located not only within the archive but engraved on the physical landscape, is a dangerous narrative that continues to undergird white supremacist ideology in South Carolina.

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Figure 1: Data sourced from the USDA Censuses of South Carolina.

For white coastal elites, the maintenance of rice cultivation meant the maintenance of white supremacy. Pringle wrote extensively of her experiences as she attempted to control Black labor for the purpose of growing rice, with a keen disdain for the African Americans who worked her land and a sense of determination to preserve some aspects of the white supremacist regime under which she had grown up.

In practically the same breath as her complaints about Black workers as “idle” and “shambling,” she described the Lowcountry landscape in unabashedly romantic terms.[2] Her cousin, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, was famous for her watercolors depicting the Lowcountry in soft pastel colors, in which Black workers serve as picturesque accessories to the marshes and forests of the coast. Pringle frequently described scenes as though she were passing them along to Smith for artistic inspiration. The autumn rice harvest, she wrote, “is the gayest week of the year,” smiling approvingly at the “real harvest weather—crisp, cool, clear; and the bowed heads of the golden grain glow in the sun.”[3] Against the backdrop of this scene of vivid blue and gold, “Men, women, and children all carry what look like immense loads,” Pringle wrote, “on their heads, apparently without effort.”

In Pringle’s illusory Lowcountry, even child labor was easy, natural, an intrinsic and harmonious part of the rice-gentled landscape—a profound cognitive dissonance given both her own rancor towards Black workers, most of all when they asserted themselves, and the arduous reality of labor in a rice field. But in the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry—which Pringle reified in her writing and Smith in her paintings – Black workers labored without thought or care, rice thrived, and the racial hierarchy that the two wealthy white women benefitted from and perpetuated remained stable. There was no disconnecting any of these elements. They were part of a cohesive white supremacist mythology that centered on the falsehood of the simple, undemanding cultivation of the fecund Lowcountry environment through rice and passive Black labor.

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These two photographs, taken at Mulberry Plantation in Berkeley County, South Carolina in 1916, demonstrate more clearly what labor in rice fields resembled. Images from the collection “Rice Harvest at Mulberry Plantation” in the Margaretta Childs Archives at the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Rice, again indulging his purple prose, declared that at rice labor camps, “people dwelt in dreamland, with asphodel, roses and all manner of delights.”[4] This selective memory of the Lowcountry cast the region as refined, with a cultivated, elegant conjoining of environment and economy, rather than a massive forced labor camp that kept captive hundreds of thousands of African Americans. In this perverse fantasy, which Rice shared with Pringle and other white South Carolinians, gorgeous gardens surrounded the lovely big house and the golden, bowed heads of ripe rice lined orderly fields, which were tended by enslaved African Americans whose humanity blurred into something insignificant and generic. Indeed, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith literally erased the individuality of African Americans, rendering their faces indistinct brush strokes of brown paint in watercolor after watercolor.

Book cover
The most widely circulated edition of A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle, which features a painting by Alice Huger Ravenel Smith on its cover and illustrations by her within. Photo by author.

But the false impression of mastery became more and more difficult for white coastal elites to maintain both because of forces of nature and the actions of African Americans. In 1927, James Henry Rice wrote that “rice planting slowly recovered as the years went on, but on August 27-28, 1893, there was a hurricane that destroyed crops, backed up salt water and created havoc everywhere…After a few hectic efforts rice planting perished.”[5] In the wake of these changes, wealthy white men and women of the Lowcountry shook their heads at the massive attrition of acreage under rice cultivation and the exodus of thousands of Black sea islanders, driven away by diminished economic opportunities, destructive hurricanes, and the acceleration of Jim Crow in the 1890s. For Rice and Pringle, these changes meant the decline in their own fortunes and in a social position that they and their ancestors had jealously guarded through violence and paranoia for centuries.

And as historians trace the ways in which Lost Cause ideology has pervaded the present, its offshoot in the Lowcountry remains one of its most visible legacies in its pervasion of an entire region. This is despite the hard and ongoing work of community activists, public historians, and others who labor to raise the visibility of historical narratives that counter this ideology. In the early-mid-twentieth century, the white elite found other ways of re-asserting their white supremacy beyond the dual command of the Lowcountry environment and Black labor. They built a Lost Cause of the Lowcountry in their books, homes, monuments, and art. Manicured plantations with no mention of enslaved African Americans, Charleston single houses whose architectural features garner more attention than their human histories, statues of John C. Calhoun and other white supremacists, and the popularity of Smith’s maudlin watercolors, not to mention the ongoing dispossession of Black sea islanders by corporate developers, privatized islands, and ever-increasing property taxes, continue to mark the coastal landscape with the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry. Rice and Pringle, once so distraught over the ruination of both rice and the racial hierarchy of slavery, might feel vindicated.


 

Citation Information:

[1] From the Caroliniana Library, James Henry Rice Papers (1868-1935). “Planting of Rice in South Carolina: Sketch of its Origin and the Splendid Civilization to which it Gave Rise – The Day of its Decline and Causes,” n.d. However, I can deduce early 1920s as the date range because that is the time period in which Rice wrote his column for The State. I have also decided to avoid historiographic notes for this post, but I felt I couldn’t write without noting that there is a rich literature on the “ruins” of the South, including but not limited to works by Megan Kate Nelson, Drew Swanson, Aaron Sachs, Reiko Hillyer, Tiya Miles, and Karen Cox.

[2] Elizabeth Allston Pringle, A Woman Rice Planter, first ed. 1913, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992), 7.

[3] Ibid, 35-36.

[4] Rice, “Georgetown County’s Vivid Story,” The State, n.d., estimated the 1920s.

[5] Ibid.


 

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