Coming to Terms with our History

Opinion

– By Bettis C. Rainsford, Sr. –

The shooting of nine African-Americans in an AME Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015 by a 21 year old Columbia man who had posted photographs of himself with a Confederate Flag and a manifesto announcing white supremacy views has led to a remarkable transformation of public opinion in South Carolina, the principal result of which was the decision by the State of South Carolina to take down the Confederate Flag from the State House grounds where it had flown since 2000. Whether this young Dylann Roof was indeed a committed white supremacist or just a mixed-up kid no different from the young men who mass-murdered strangers in Connecticut or Colorado will be debated for months and years to come.

However, there is no doubt that the actions of this single individual have had a remarkable effect upon our entire state and nation. More recently, as a result of his actions, debates have accelerated or broken out about a number of other issues related to memorials of historical figures in South Carolina and their positions on slavery, race, segregation, Jim Crow laws and Civil Rights.

The good news is that, to a significant extent, these troublesome issues are behind us. As the twenty-first century continues to unfold, we in South Carolina have entered a new period in which racial equality is widely accomplished and in which racial harmony, though not universal, is a realistic near-term goal for our State. Indeed, as the remarkable coming together of South Carolinians in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting has shown, for the first time in more than three centuries, our people – both black and white – are largely free from the burden of the racial divide that has held back our progress for so long.

The bad news is that in a state like ours, which is so rich in history and on which history much of our economically-important tourism industry is based, we must confront – and make sense of – these difficult issues which have so completely absorbed our state during the vast majority of its history.

Many of today’s historians focus very heavily on these troubling issues of slavery, segregation and white supremacy. They broadly condemn those institutions that have suppressed our African American population over the years and appropriately applaud those who played key roles in bringing these institutions to an end. The result of this is that the troubling institutions of our past are entirely discredited and those responsible for bringing an end to them are appropriately acknowledged. That much is good.

However, in most cases, these modern historians and other commentators have also condemned many of those who have led our state during the last two centuries for their roles in perpetuating those institutions. These historians apply today’s standards of morality and concepts of political correctness to people who grew up in an entirely different era and whose views of the world were molded by personal experiences, conventional wisdom and moral standards far different from those of today. The result is that many of our forebears are being characterized as evil and misguided persons because of their support of slavery or segregation or white supremacy. In most cases, there is no acknowledgment that these leaders acted according to the widely-accepted standards of their day.

Indeed, the evils of slavery, segregation and the oppression of minorities were not the exclusive property of South Carolina or the South, but were ancient and widely-embraced institutions for which the entire human race shares blame. Almost every civilization in recorded history – from the ancient Egyptians and Hebrews, to the Greeks and Romans, to the Chinese, Arabs, and to the Aztecs and Mayans of the New World – employed the institution of slavery in one form or another. Every colony of the original thirteen had allowed slavery at some point in its history, and slavery existed in many northern states well into the nineteenth century. Many of the principal slave traders hailed from New England.

We should also keep in mind that throughout the eighteenth century, white-servitude was in widespread practice. Many of the ancestors of white Americans found their way to the New World as “indentured servants” who were bound as unpaid laborers normally for a period of seven years in exchange for their passage across the ocean. Although these indentured servants were more fortunate than the African slaves who had no realistic hope of being free in the future, it is important to appreciate the fact that the South Carolinians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century accommodated themselves to African slavery against the background of the general acceptance of indentured white servitude.

It is also well to remember that the African slave trade was significantly enabled by African tribes enslaving members of other tribes and selling them to Arab, European and American slave traders who transported them to the Arab world and to the Americas. The extent of African involvement in the slave trade is illustrated by the example of King Tegesibu of Dahomey in West Africa who, in the single year of 1750, made approximately £250,000 from selling slaves.[1] It is also significant that more than a few free blacks in the South at the time of the Civil War owned slaves themselves.[2] Even today, slavery – though technically illegal – is still actively practiced in some African countries.[3] Thus, the evils of slavery are far from being limited to the white population.

And while no one can deny that slavery was a very violent institution in which much cruel and violent treatment was inflicted upon the enslaved, the violence of nineteenth century slavery should be judged against the social mores of the time. The sensibilities of twenty-first century citizens are almost always shocked by the violence of the nineteenth century. For example, the nineteenth century was a time in which young boys at elite antebellum academies of the South who failed to learn their lessons were beaten regularly, sometimes until the blood ran down their legs.[4] It was a time when convicted felons were branded and when public whipping was a common sentence for many crimes. Thus, when a slave was whipped for some infraction, it was condemned only if the whipping was deemed to have been inflicted without sufficient cause or was excessive.

Indeed, slavery is not a Southern – or a Southern white – evil: It is a human evil, and all mankind throughout history bears guilt for the horrible atrocities perpetrated under this institution.

It is also undeniable that from the very beginning of European settlement in America, there was a consistent and continuing effort on the part of the white population to institute and maintain a system which would hold its black population in a position of servitude and second class citizenship. Again, this was true in every colony in Colonial America. Although slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by a judicial decision in 1783, this was done not for the benefit of blacks but to remove them from economic competition with the strong, politically-active white working class. Said John Adams of the court decision, “If the gentlemen had been permitted by law to hold slaves, the common people would have put the Negroes to death, and their masters too, perhaps.”[5] A few years later, in 1788, Massachusetts passed a law providing for the flogging of non-resident free blacks who remained in the state for more than two months. [6]

Even the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was a racist by today’s standards. In his much-celebrated debates with Stephen Douglas, he declared: “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”[7]

Because of the far greater percentage of the black population in the Southern states, the effort to subjugate the black race was greater here. Beginning with the end of the federal occupation of the South in the 1870’s, this effort intensified and by the turn of the twentieth century, a fairly universal system of “segregation,” in which blacks were relegated to separate, and general unequal, accommodations, was in place. Additionally, so-called “Jim Crow” laws had been passed to insure that blacks would be kept in their condition of subservience. At that time, the idea that the color of one’s skin was indicative of one’s worth was almost universally held, from the far reaches of the British Empire to even in the African American communities in America, where “high yellow” was considered to be a sign of considerable superiority over other blacks.[8]

Like slavery, this systematic repression of people based upon their skin color was not a Southern evil: It was a human evil and all mankind bears guilt for this detestable institution. Very fortunately for our world, both slavery and the repression of people based upon the color of their skin have been thoroughly discredited, and today we as a people have largely moved beyond the evils that grew out of these systems.

The growing condemnation of our Southern forebears for their positions on the issues of slavery, segregation or white supremacy by modern historians is generally done without consideration of the historical context in which the forebears lived or the conventional wisdom and moral standards under which they had grown to maturity. Further, the critics give little or no consideration to the many positive contributions which these forebears made to our state and nation. In so doing, these historians are as guilty of de-humanizing their fellow man as the most strident segregationist was of de-humanizing the black citizens of our state during the Jim Crow era.

One South Carolina leader who has come under particularly intense criticism in recent years is Benjamin Ryan Tillman (1847-1918). Tillman and his actions during Reconstruction and his later political career should be viewed within the context of the massive sufferings of the Civil War and Reconstruction under which he grew to maturity.

Between 1861 and 1865 the people of South Carolina endured four of the bloodiest years of war in human history in which nearly one-third of their fighting age white males died.[9] As a teenager in 1864, Ben Tillman observed the horrific results of the war first-hand when he accompanied his mother to an Atlanta hospital to see his beloved brother, Jim Tillman, who had been badly wounded. This brother died of his injuries in the year following the war. The effects upon the psyches of the people of South Carolina by the loss of life and suffering during the war cannot be underestimated.

Additionally, the emancipation of the slaves in 1865 had wiped out a huge portion of the state’s wealth, thrust most people – black and white – into dire economic straits and necessitated an almost total reorganization of our political, economic and social systems. Like all of the other planter families of South Carolina, the Tillman family had to deal with the economic difficulties of the period, and it was only because Ben Tillman, who was willing to work hard and get his own hands dirty, that the family was able to survive with the family farm intact. However, the economic devastation and dislocation resulting from the war certainly marked all those who had to deal with these harsh realities.

And, importantly, during the eleven year period of Reconstruction, the state endured the occupation by federal troops in which the native white population was militarily and politically dominated by what they perceived as corrupt Republican administrations imposed upon them by the bayonets of their former enemies. Certainly, almost any group of people similarly dominated would have felt bitter toward those who dominated them.

Indeed, given the cumulative impact of the war, the economic dislocation and the political oppression experienced by the native white population of South Carolina, no reasonable observer should have expected that they would have indefinitely remained passive or continued to accept the status quo of the Reconstruction years.

The events of 1876 in which Tillman was involved, and which have been the source of much criticism of him, represented the beginning of a massive organized effort on the part of the native white population to re-secure its control of the political machinery of the state. This broad-based movement came to be known as “the Red Shirt campaign.” Violence was unquestionably a calculated part of the strategy to remove the Republican dominance and, in the view of the Red Shirts, who were mostly former Confederate soldiers, their actions were simply a continuation of the struggle which had begun in 1861. To the extent that people were shot and killed in the process of their fight to regain control of the state, the Red Shirts believed that their actions were as justifiable as their service in the Civil War or their grandfathers’ service against the British during the Revolution. It is for this reason that the eminent South Carolina historian, Walter Edgar, in his monumental South Carolina – A History, has titled his chapter on Reconstruction as “The Civil War – Part II.” And, it is important to note that at least ninety-five percent (95%) of all white South Carolinians supported the efforts of the Red Shirts and voted for their candidates.

During recent debates about Tillman, many have spoken of Tillman as a “murderer” for his actions during the 1876 campaign. However, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he ever murdered anyone. In the case of the Hamburg riot which was a shoot-out between the Negro militia and the white rifle clubs, Tillman was not among those who, after the riot was over, shot the five Negro militiamen prisoners.[10] In the case of the shooting of State Senator Simon Coker in the aftermath of the Ellenton riot which has been so often referred to, it was Captain Nat Butler, who was not in Tillman’s command, who commandeered two of Tillman’s men and with them took Coker off and shot him. Tillman only found out about it afterwards.[11]

It is interesting that, after recounting the facts of Coker’s murder in his 1909 speech, The Struggles of 1876, Tillman felt it necessary to make the following statement to his audience: “It will appear a ruthless and cruel thing to those unacquainted with the environments; but those who are disposed to criticize the actions of the men at Hamburg and Ellenton must first put themselves in the places of the whites who had been trampled in the mire by the carpetbaggers and negroes for eight long years, and realize that the struggle in which we were engaged meant more than life or death. It involved everything we held dear . . . .”[12]

By the middle of 1877, the Red Shirt strategy, along with an increasing tolerance on the part of the rest of the nation to allow the South to go forward on its own terms, proved successful in bringing the control of the state back into the hands of the native white population. In the years following 1876, Ben Tillman rose to political prominence in South Carolina and was largely guided by his deep commitment to insure that the circumstances of Reconstruction, under which he lived from the age of 18 until the age of 29, would never return to the state. As Governor and United States Senator he made many valuable contributions to our state, not the least of which was to found Clemson and Winthrop Universities, neither of which would exist today but for the leadership he provided.

Ben Tillman had become one of the most powerful leaders in our state’s history because of his deep commitment to help the farmers of the state who were in dire economic circumstances. He was famous for his forceful and colorful speech and was, by all accounts, a picturesque figure in his public life. However, among those who knew him well, he was known to be a kindly man. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) of Massachusetts who delivered one of his eulogies said of Tillman: “Senators found also that the blunt words and the stormy manner when he was roused were far more in evidence in public than in private life. Behind all this was a kindly nature, plenty of humor, a serious outlook on life, and real sincerity of purpose.”[13] Ben Tillman was certainly not the evil man portrayed by his most recent biographer.

The historians and other observers who look upon the Reconstruction period from the perspective of the twenty-first century and condemn Tillman and the Red Shirts may feel morally justified in doing so. But they fail to acknowledge those factors which caused the participants in that movement to act as they did. To be a historian worthy of the name, one must be able to at least empathize – if not sympathize – with all of the actors upon the historical stage. To do less is to fool ourselves into believing that we are better than we really are.

The fact is that, given the same background and faced with the same circumstances, the overwhelming majority of us – black and white, rich and poor, old and young – would have acted just as those Red Shirts did one hundred and forty years ago. Our sins are not the sins of the Democrat or the Republican, the Scalawag, the Carpetbagger, the Freedman or the unreconstructed Confederate. Ours are the sins of the human race. As soon as we accept our own personal fallibility and adopt an attitude of moral humility, we will be better able to accept our history and to chart a better course for our future.

One of the most important truths in Christian theology is illustrated when, on Thursday night before the crucifixion just before Christ was arrested, he told Peter that he – Peter – would deny him thrice before the cock crew. Peter refused to believe it, saying “No, Lord, not I,” but then he did deny knowing Christ three times during the night as he was questioned, and immediately after the third denial, he heard the cock crow.[14] So, too, we may say that “No, we would never be guilty of that which Tillman or the Red Shirts did,” but, the reality is that the cock may very well crow for us too.

It has taken our state more than a century and a half since the end of the Civil War to achieve the tremendous transformation of our economy, our political system, and the popular beliefs of society and race to that which we enjoy today. While much still remains to be improved in our state, we should celebrate the tremendous strides we have already made. If we as a state are to progress further, we must look forward to the future and not agonize over our oft-troubled past.

Our past is past, and while knowing our history and understanding the forces that have brought us to this point are essential in helping us move forward, no good can come from condemning our leaders of the past. If our objective is to encourage racial harmony in our state, we should not seek to change the names of our buildings or to remove our historical monuments, because such actions will inevitably create more racial divisiveness which will hurt our state and its people.

Instead we should seek to honor others whose contributions may have been overlooked and to devote our energies to doing those things which will make us a better state and nation. Let us follow the example of the families of those killed in the Charleston massacre and forgive those leaders of our state’s past whose actions and beliefs may be at variance with our twenty-first century values. Let a spirit of forgiveness prevail and let a commitment to insuring that we do not commit our own grievous sins be our guiding light.

 

[1] Thomas, Hugh, The Slave Trade, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870, Simon & Schuster, 1997, p. 354. Thomas’ book, an excellent survey of the Atlantic slave trade, contains a lot of interesting information about the slave trade, much of which is unfamiliar to historians and the general public.
[2] In South Carolina in 1860, there were 171 black slaveholders of which one, William Ellison of the Sumter District, owned sixty-three slaves. See Edgar, Walter, South Carolina – A History, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC 1998, pp. 308-310.
[3] “Slavery still haunts Africa, where millions remain captive,” The Los Angeles Times, October 17, 2013.
[4] LaBorde, M., M. D., History of the South Carolina College, Walker, Evans & Cogswell, Charleston, 1874, p. vii.
[5] Letters and Documents Relating to Slavery in Massachusetts, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection, 5th Series, III (1877), pp. 401-2, quoted in Harper, Douglas, Slavery in the North, “Emancipation in Massachusetts,” an on-line paper, (http://slavenorth.com/massemancip.htm.).
[6] Ibid., “Exclusion of Free Blacks” (http://slavenorth.com/exclusion.htm.).
[7] Lincoln, Abraham, Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858, contained in Baser, Roy P., editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, pp. 145-146.
[8] Edgar, p. 310.
[9] Ibid., p. 375.
[10] Tillman, Senator B. R., The Struggles of 1876, Address Delivered at the Red Shirt Reunion, Anderson, S.C., August 25, 1909, p. 17.
[11] Ibid., pp. 45-46.
[12] Ibid., p. 46.
[13] Memorial Addresses to Benjamin Ryan Tillman delivered in the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States, Proceedings of December 15, 1913, Washington, 1919, p. 17-18.
[14] Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chapter 26, verses 33-35, 69-75; St. Mark, Chapter 14, verses 29-31, 66-72; St. Luke, Chapter 22, verses 33-34, 56-62; St. John, Chapter 13, verses 36-38, Chapter 18, verses 17-18, 25-27. It is significant and instructive that this story appears in all four of the Gospels.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Edgefield Advertiser.

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3 Responses to "Coming to Terms with our History"

  1. Francis   August 3, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Do as I say, not as I do: “As soon as we accept our own personal fallibility and adopt an attitude of moral humility, we will be better able to accept our history and to chart a better course for our future.”

  2. robtmscott   August 4, 2015 at 6:15 am

    The perspective of the writer, in particular in his discussions of Ben Tillman, is certainly that of an historian focused on the trials and tribulations of the white minority population. One is led to empathize with the farmers and less affluent planters who were Tillman’s primary constituency, and not with those black South Carolinians whose numbers and labor underpinned the entire system. Monuments to the past should be designed to help us understand that past, but to praise only those who were truly praiseworthy — yes, by today’s standards. People and events whose evil nature are only apparent in the light of history should nevertheless be regarded as evil. It is not unjust to decide now, in the 21st Century, that considering the whole person we should, for example, remove statues of dishonorable people (by today’s standards) from places of honor. Destroy the memory? No. We all can, and should, learn from it. But continue to honor the memory? Not at all.

  3. Ben   August 9, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    I enjoyed reading the author’s op-Ed and appreciate his perspective. As with any point in our world’s history, the context of a particular time plays a vital role in understanding much of what occurred. While we certainly do not need to celebrate all of our history, we should attempt to understand it and he has touched on sentiment of that time which deserves recognition. A truthful understanding our our past allows us to move forward without repeating the sins of that past, and hopefully we are all better people for having that understanding.