Editor’s note: This is the second half of Caroline’s two-part series on the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry, in which white supremacists glamorized antebellum rice production on the South Carolina sea islands. Read part 1 here. The post below explores how Black residents of the Lowcountry and their descendants pushed back against this narrative during Jim Crow.
Despite the dominance of white supremacist ideologies that painted glossy pictures of rice cultivation under enslavement and the impact of those mythologies on racial oppression and racist policy, Black South Carolinians living in the Jim Crow Lowcountry forged their own historical narratives to bolster cultural resilience and political resistance. As Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts noted in Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (2018), “[t]racing the genealogy of black social memory is not easy,” particularly in the rural South during the early decades of Jim Crow.1 But Black South Carolinians who had lived and worked in the farms of the Lowcountry during the first generation of Jim Crow left traces nonetheless, which spring out in interviews, petitions, and other accounts.
White South Carolinians whose livelihoods relied upon Black-grown rice perhaps felt a special need to promote the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry because of the persistence of Black landownership and voting rights in the Lowcountry, which obligated white landowners to compromise with Black South Carolinians over terms of labor more than they would have wished. Black sea islanders, aware of this meager advantage, leveraged their labor power when possible. The Lowcountry had a rich tradition of protest and labor action during Reconstruction, and the memory of that resistance likely dwelled in the minds of Black laborers as they saw their political and economic gains drained away by white supremacist violence, both political and bodily, in the decades after.2 In a few rare petitions in their own words, interviews conducted by whites, and accounts of white landowners that can be read across their grain, African Americans forged their own narratives that make it clear that work in the rice fields was difficult and dirty and that they often did it only because they were compelled to do so. No lovely pastoral tableaus appear in these narratives. Instead, Black South Carolinians’ narratives focus on the brutality of labor in Lowcountry rice, the desperate need of white landowners for Black labor, and how Black sea islanders strove to make postbellum systems of farm labor work for them, as best was possible under the circumstances of oppression and deprivation under Jim Crow.
Sometimes Black residents of the Lowcountry explicitly stated their understanding and experience of the white supremacist system that shaped their labor in the region. After the destructive Great Sea Island Storm of 1893, which took dead aim at the sea islands around Beaufort, South Carolina, killing at least 1500 Black sea islanders, the American Red Cross under Clara Barton led a nine-month recovery effort that distributed rations to some 75,000 South Carolinians and guided construction projects that revitalized Black homes and farms. Though the Red Cross volunteers were decidedly paternalist and frequently racist, they also supported Black sea islanders in their goals for landed independence. In spring 1894, African American farmers living in the rice growing community of Pocotaligo, South Carolina, appealed to the Red Cross in a remarkable series of petitions. White landowners in the area, disgruntled at the Red Cross’s dispensation of rations at the very moment that they hoped to force Black farm laborers into submission, had written to Barton demanding that the Red Cross cease aid. The ringleader Eugene Gregorie, a white supremacist who engaged in vigilante violence against Black voters in 1880, wrote “My foreman tells me that the negroes about Pocotaligo boast that they are not going to work as long as the RC issues rations and clothing […] Unless it is all stopped before May we had just as well not plant.”3
The Black farmers of Pocotaligo—men and women—fought back in several petitions that refuted the claims of white landowners and explained that, in fact, the Red Cross rations made it possible to better maintain their own land. Frequently driven by a need for cash to purchase food during the lean season in late winter and early spring, Black farmers would rent out their labor to white landowners; but the Red Cross rations fed their seasonal hunger so that they could tend to their crops instead. “We Beg that you will contrive to help us a little longer so that we may be able to make our crop as we are making every Effort to do So,” read one petition, signed by eight-two Black laborers.4 Another was written and signed by sixty-five Black farmers and boldly declared the nature of the system under which they were forced to live:
The White Farmers is pregeded agence the poor colored people […] The know if we can git a little Helpe that we can stay on our own place and plant our crops and work there. The depend on us to make there crops and as long as there can make falce statement to the World agence the Black Man to git you to withdraw from us the Beter.5
The Red Cross sided with the petitioners and continued providing rations in an unusual victory for Black farmers at the time. In 1894 South Carolina, these petitions were acts of profound bravery. Less could get them killed by men like Gregorie. The Black farmers of Pocotaligo had, in these petitions, built a narrative that in no way resembled the musings of whites like James Henry Rice or Elizabeth Allston Pringle. White landowners sought to coerce Black labor, as they always had, for their own benefit and wealth, at the expense of Black autonomy.
A few decades later, Black sea islanders who had worked in South Carolina rice fields disseminated similar narratives that rebutted the Lost Cause of the Lowcountry. The context of the 1930s was different from the early 1890s, to be sure. In the early 1890s, Black South Carolinians living in coastal counties still voted and occasionally held political office. But by the 1930s, white supremacists had seized the state with the passage of the 1895 segregationist constitution, and a series of virulently racist governors and senators had controlled the state government for decades. But the interviews conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, provide another glimpse into how Black sea islanders conceived of the history of rice cultivation and their role in it. Though these are fraught documents, given that many of the interviewers were white South Carolinians from powerful white families, the narratives that emerge despite the circumstances of their documentation should not be wholly dismissed.6
Though the interviews were not released to the public on a large scale until the 1970s, they are testament to the narratives that Black sea islanders had, for generations and even centuries, developed and nurtured about their history in the Lowcountry. Gabe Lance, born and living on Sandy Island, spoke to the herculean labor of carving rice fields out of Lowcountry: “All dem rice-field been nothing but swamp. Slavery people cut kennel (canal) and dig ditch and cut down woods—and dig ditch through the raw woods. All been clear up for plant rice by slavery people.”7 Mack Taylor, who was ninety-seven years old at the time of his interview, also pointed to the stringencies of enslaved labor and the centrality of it to white wealth and the southern economy and even advocated for reparations: his ancestors “was fetched here ‘ginst our taste. Us fell de forests for corn, wheat, oats, and cotton; drained de swamps for rice; built de dirt roads and de railroads; and us old ones is got a fair right to our part of de pension.”8 Black South Carolinians, in recounting their ancestral memories of rice and slavery, fought to repudiate insidious white narratives of slavery.
One interview, which has never been published in any of the compilations of the South Carolina “slave narratives,” reveals memories of slavery that the majority of white South Carolinians would have preferred to keep quiet. And indeed, the exclusion of this interview from published editions of the narratives may have been a deliberate act to silence the history that George Cato, a laborer in Columbia, South Carolina, recounted. George Cato was the great-great-grandson of the commander of the Stono Rebellion, the largest uprising of enslaved Africans and African Americans in South Carolina’s history. The story of that rebellion had “been a tradition in his family for 196 years.”9 In 1739, a group of enslaved Africans marched with banners declaring “Liberty!” from the rice-growing labor camps around the Stono River south of Charleston towards Florida, where the Spanish colonial government promised freedom to any enslaved Africans escaping from the British colony of South Carolina. Though the colonial militia put down the rebellion after a few days, executed over forty of the freedom fighters, staked their heads along the roads that radiated from Charleston, and enacted retaliatory laws severely restricting the lives of the enslaved, the memory of the rebellion lived on among Black South Carolinians. Cato proudly recalled his ancestor’s leadership:
De first Cato slave we knows ‘bout, was plum willin’ to lay down his life for de right. Dat is pow’ful fine for de Catoes who has come after him […] de first Cato take a darin’ chance on losin’ his life, not so much for his own benefit as it was to help others […] He die but he die for doin’ right, as he see it.
George Cato’s family had long passed down the facts of the rebellion and even had made sure to walk their children along the rebels’ route, in a freedom march borne of a centuries-old tradition of resistance.
His history of a slave rebellion would have been unwelcome to white South Carolinians, intent as they were on a dual project of depicting the slavery of the antebellum South as a stable system of economic prosperity and of subduing Black resistance to Jim Crow. White South Carolinians’ Lost Cause of the Lowcountry twisted slavery into something unrecognizable to the Black sea islanders and used that fallacious narrative to feed the ideology of Jim Crow as a necessary hierarchy ordering the labor and political control of Black Southerners. But George Cato, Mack Taylor, Gabe Lance, the Black farmers of Pocotaligo, and other Black South Carolinians kept histories alive that made vividly clear what slavery in the Lowcountry rice fields truly meant, and what the consequences of that history were for the perpetuation of Jim Crow.
*Featured image credit: Mulberry Plantation Rice Harvest, Photo 17, in “Rice Harvest at Mulberry Plantation,” 1916, from the Margaretta Childs Archives at the Historic Charleston Foundation.
1. Again, I am going to avoid putting together a historiography in the endnotes as much as possible, but here I am quoting an excellent new book that examines the historical narratives that Black and white Charlestonians constructed over time: Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and memory in the cradle of the Confederacy, (New York: The New Press, 2018), p. 9.
2. For more on that history, see Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy, Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State, 1983); Leslie Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina, (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois, 1997); and John Scott Strickland, “Traditional Culture and Moral Economy: Social and economic change in the South Carolina Low Country, 1865-1910,” in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation, ed. Steven Hahn and Johnathan Prude, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985).
3. From Eugene Gregorie to Colonel William Elliott on March 29th, 1894, in the Clara Barton Papers: Red Cross File, 1863 to 1957; American National Red Cross, 1878 to 1957; Relief operations; Sea Islands, S.C.; Correspondance, undated. 1893. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Image 59.
5. Ibid, Image 18, from April 3rd, 1894.
6. This has been a massive debate stretching over decades and I am, again, avoiding putting a huge historiographic essay in the endnotes. However, I do feel compelled to include one very interesting study done using the interviews: Morris Jenkins, “Gullah Island Dispute Resolution: An example of Afrocentric restorative justice,” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, Issue 2, (Nov. 1st, 2006), pp. 299-319.
7. Slave Narratives: A folk history of slavery in the United States from interviews with former slaves, for the Federal Writers’ Project, assembled by the Library of Congress Project, Published Washington, D.C., 1941. Volume XIV, South Carolina Narratives, Part 3, May 13th, 1939, interview by Genevieve W. Chandler, #390432.
8. Ibid, Part 4, 390427, Interview by W. W. Dixon with Mack Taylor.
9. In the folder Federal Writers Project, (S.C.), Unpublished Ex-Slave Narratives at the South Caroliniana Library, 36 MSS, pages 1-3. For more on the Stono Rebellion, see Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, (New York: Norton, 1974).