Essay — 09 July 2015

georgetown plantations


Walker Rowe

At the risk of being flamed, I am going to try to put some perspective on the issue of Confederate Flag and what it means to someone like me who grew up in the Deep South. In sum, it does not mean anything at all.

First of all, let me say that I am glad that the Confederate Flag has been banished from the State House.  It was flying in a memorial there.  When I went to college in Columbia it flew atop the Capital, right below the American and South Carolina flag.  Now that the flag has been taken down, that issue has been taken off the table in the discussion of race relations. So the discussion can move onto the next issue to confront.

Now, what about the Confederate Battle flag?  What does it mean to a Southerner? Are we all rednecks and assassins who would go around burning Black churches? No. We’re more like fallen aristocrats, or would like to think we are, who have lost their rich plantations and titles but cling to the ghosts of the past.

VS Naipaul is a Nobel Prize winning Indian writer from Trinidad and thus a British citizen.  That he won the Nobel Prize at all makes one wonder if anyone on the Nobel committee read his books.  Naipaul took the position that not all cultures were ready to govern themselves and said that much of Black Africa was better off under colonial rule.  Keep than in mind as you read on.

I read Naipaul’s books, almost all of them. One of my favorites is “A Turn in the South.” There Mr Naipaul describes his visit to South Carolina and Mississippi.  In South Carolina he visited a plantation outside Charleston.  In Mississippi he visited the Tuskegee Institute, the first black college.

Mr Naipaul does not go to Tuskegee to sing the praises of Booker T. Washington, the free black who taught blacks to be practical instead of political in those dangerous times.  Instead Naipaul writes about the slums that surround the school and the dysfunctional behavior of the people living there.

Then he heads to Charleston.  Or “Chaaarrrrleston” as people who have lived there for generations like to say in their thick as molasses Southern accent, some of which is practised.  Mr Naipal visited Magnolia Plantation.  It’s not a plantation anymore, as there is no farming there and no slaves.  The Civil War put an end to that.  But what remains is the façade of what we like to call Moonlight and Magnolia whimsy.  All the trappings of a plantation are there.  There is the fine brick manor house, the small brick cabins where the slaves lived, and the long drive with ancient Live Oak trees adorned with Spanish Moss. And then there is what I like most, the warm to hot weather, the constant hum of cicadas, and the smell of salt marsh and plough mud.

Naipaul was quick to see right through this walk-in museum to the Antebellum South. He said that for Southerns, “History is religion.” He could not have been more correct.

Among the best writers South Carolina has ever had is someone no one from South Carolina ever heard of, unless they like to read a lot.  That is Archibald Rutledge.  He was a school teacher and frequent contributor to Field and Stream hunting magazine and wrote many books of poems.  Rutledge inherited one of those vast plantations, Hampton Plantation, located just outside Georgetown, which is where I was born.  Like so many other ruined aristocrats, Rutledge did not have the money to prop up its sagging timbers nor fix the leaking roof.  So he went North to Pennsylvania where he lived among the Yankees until he retired back to Hampton to put the place in working order.

When school was out, and in his retirement, Archibald had much time to roam his beloved Hampton Plantation and its many miles of swamp, marsh, salt water creeks, and pine forests hunting deer, duck, and turkey. He always went with his huntsman, one of the handful of blacks who continued to live on Hampton long after the Civil War left them with no place else to go.  Mr Rutledge wrote about these people in a book “God’s Children,” that today one would find racist.  To Archibald Rutledge it was not demeaning at all to say that such and such was a lazy scoundrel who drank all night, slept all day, cheated on his wife, but could toss a fishing cast net with great skill.  He was mightily impressed too by the strong men who would wade into the snake-filled swamp and fell Cypress trees with nothing more than an ax.  These were God’s Children in the benevolent slave master myth.  Were their slave masters who were kind to their slaves?  Don’t know.  I was not there.  Don’t blame me for slavery either, for the same reason.

My heirs left me no plantation but they did fight in the Civil War.  My mom’s second husband owned what was called “Windfall Pond Plantation,” only a few short miles from Hampton Plantation.  The name itself shows the Southern reverence for Magnolia and Moonlight whimsy as it had never been an actual plantation.  At 200 acres, there was plenty of room to roam.  But there were no slave cabins, no ruined rice fields, and no slaves ever worked there.  Instead it was carved out from some other place that actually had been a plantation.  By then it had become a duck hunting club where my stepfather took his friends and where I spent the summers exploring the same sea islands where Archibald Rutledge had hunted.  It is this vast and empty coastline that fronted Windfall Pond that for me is reminiscent of the South that has been crowded out by modernity.  There was not one house from Debordieu all the way to Mount Pleasant, a distance of 80 miles and I was in the middle of that emptiness.  I would spend the entire day on the beach and usually not see one soul.  Now the place is overrun with motor boats.

The Confederate Battle flag is just a symbol of that time in place that has disappeared, having been trampled on by people who did not grow up there and who would never understand the place.  We are like those ghosts that haunt Magnolia Plantation. Except instead of wandering the Widows Walks, we are very much alive. But don’t ask us to apologize for slavery.  Anyone who was involved with that is long since dead.

I look back on my youth with longing not for the Civil War history, since that predates me by 100 years, but on the other vestiges of the Old South that have disappeared.  The Confederate Flag is not one of them. The flag never meant anything to me.  It was just a symbol whose very mention made us think of that and fired up the passion in us by those who wished to force us to make a change.

I look back on the South of cotton fields and pine forests with a kind of sadness, because that is lost to me. I think of the tobacco barns and burnt stubble corn fields where my father took me to shoot dove.  Or the 20,000 acre Santee Gun Club where we fished for bass and bream a dozen miles east of Archibald Rutledge’s Hampton Plantation.  That was a time when you could drive on the interstate highway for 10 minutes without seeing another car. There were no foreigners at all, unless you count what we called “Yankees,”  meaning people from such Godless places as New Joisy. At that time there was almost no one from the North living in the South.  My mom and others did not like people from the North.  I never even met a Catholic until I was 16 years old and the first Latina person I saw, I married, at age 28.

As for blacks, all of us had nannies and cooks.  They lived then as they do now in their own neighborhoods.  For a time I went to private school when I spent one year living with my father instead of my mom.  This is how we practiced school segregation.  The public school was perhaps 95% black.  Only the poor white trash went there.  In those days, the black descendants of slaves greatly out numbered whites in counties along the coast, which is where the plantations were.  That situation has since changed.

So you can see that in the Scotch-Irish-English South there was no one living there who did not share our common experience.  We were very much a homogeneous culture. Our great grandparents were old enough to remember their grandparents who fought in the Civil War.  I was not part of that, but I had a Confederate flag in my closet.  Someone gave it to me.  I don’t remember who.  We never flew it. That was for people who did not even live in the South, like drag racers in Kansas or some foreign place like that.  We never thought about the flag, until someone asked us to take it down 20 years ago.  Then we circled the wagons and pushed back against the assault against our past and present.

The anti-flag crowd were like the carpetbaggers who descended on the South after the Civil War.  In my youth these Yankees started trickling in.  Now it has become a flood.  Back then the only Yankees one would see were in Myrtle Beach, which is where they went.  Now the places where we went, Pawley’s Island and Litchfield Beach, are overrun with people from the North.  My mother did not like them at all.  Someone shouted at me when I drove around Charlotte, North Carolina in my girlfriend’s car with Massachusetts license plates.

You cannot simply erase the past because you do not like it.  Have you read William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize author from Oxford, Mississippi?  He said “The past is not even past.” Every other paragraph in his novels contains the n-word.  That’s just what people called blacks back then.  That’s what my paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather called them.  I never did, as by the time I was old enough to talk people did not say that, except someone much older, like my grandparents. This is because Jesse Jackson, who is from the town where I grew up, said we should not say that.  Of Jesse Jackson, we said he spit in the white people’s food when he worked in the Poinsett Hotel.

So, put yourself for a moment in the shoes of someone like my father or grandfather, both of whom are long dead.  When they were young, blacks were not even allowed to come into town after dark.  In Swansboro, North Carolina where my dad grew up there was a sign that said “Nigger don’t let the sun set on your head.”  This fear was how the whites retained power after the war.  If you fought in the Civil War, and all the voting males did, then President Grant took away your right to vote.  Blacks came to political power for a very short time:  South Carolina had a black governor.  But the people who had previously owned these blacks as slaves, and probably considered them something less than human, would not stand for that.  So the Klu Klux Klan and other forms of terror pushed blacks back into their shotgun shacks and ushered in the era of Apartheid that was part of my youth.  That system remained in place all the way until the 1960s.  1960 is not that long ago.

So you see there are still many of us who remember what our grandparents told us about our history.  So it bothers us a lot when people from outside want to take away our culture.   Let them have the flag.  We don’t care about that.  What bothers us is that people who are not from our culture want to mock and belittle our culture and force us to change.  The flag is gone: good riddance.  It never mattered much to us.  It only mattered to those who were not one of us.







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