Human beings are a curious species. One of the things we seek to know is where we came from, who our ancestors were, how they lived, and what they thought. It gives us dignity and justifies our existence to know that we had a place in this world even before we were a part of it.
This knowledge of the past is called history. Like religion, it is abstract, yet the source of endless study, debate, even bloodshed. The power to record history is the power to define nations and whole races.
When Africans were abducted and brought to the New World as slaves, they lost more than their names and religion. They lost their history.
The effect of slavery was to destroy the slave’s dignity, hope, and sense of belonging. Without these, a human being is reduced to mere chattel, like a mule or a wagon. That was one of the reasons slaves were not allowed to read or write. Writing was a means of preserving history.
For a century after slavery, white historians still managed to write the history of this nation with hardly a mention of slavery or the presence of black people. In South Carolina, the state history textbooks used by generations of school children rarely mentioned black people except to say that they were happy and productive slaves.
There has always been an underground history, an unofficial, rarely noticed telling of the nation’s story, which explored the role of black people in the building of America. It was a movement led by black scholars like George Washington Williams, W.E.B. Dubois, Carter G. Woodson, and John Hope Franklin.
In recent decades, that underground history has emerged to become part of the cultural mainstream. Today, new books explore the role of famous and obscure black people in all aspects of American life.
Charleston historian Damon Fordham is part of this new scholarship, and as a lifelong South Carolinian, he keeps his eye trained on his native state in his new book, True Stories of Black South Carolina (History Press).
This is the kind of history that would not have been taught in any white school or published by any “white” press 50 years ago. These are the accounts of largely unknown black people who have left their mark on the state, and sometimes beyond.
Fordham tells the story of crusading black newspapermen Labon Morgan and J.A. Roach. And here is Carole Moore, the 12-year-old girl who took part in a sit-in to desegregate a Spartanburg lunch counter in 1960, and Frazier Baker, the black postmaster in the little town of Effingham, who was burned out of his home and murdered, along with his infant daughter, by a white mob in 1898. The incident made headlines around the nation and the world, but when a group of white men were brought to trial for the crimes, an all-white jury deadlocked. No one was ever convicted.
The most bizarre story in Fordham’s book is the tale of the black lynchers of Pickens County. When a white farmhand raped and murdered a young black girl in her home in 1887, a group of black farmers banded together and hanged the man without a trial.
Fordham’s father, Abe Fordham, was a schoolteacher in Mt. Pleasant and a great storyteller. Young Fordham was fascinated with his father’s tales of the Great Depression and World War II. “He loved to talk, and I loved to listen,” he says. Listening to his father’s stories, Damon Fordham decided he would become a historian.
Fordham was born in the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, striking down most of the old Jim Crow laws. His father reminded him frequently that his was the first generation of black children who would not grow up in segregation. But Jim Crow had already left his mark on millions of lives and on southern society at large.
“One of the tragedies of Jim Crow was that it left such a gulf of misunderstanding between the races,” Fordham said. “Whites really thought they ‘understood the Negro.'”
Of course, they were deluding themselves, and when civil rights activists started demanding change, whites were genuinely shocked and angry. Half a century later, some still haven’t gotten over it. Damon Fordham’s True Stories of Black South Carolina would be a good place for these angry and deluded souls to start learning the truth. After all, white people were also victims of segregation.
“There is so much more to history than what people usually get out of history books and documentaries,” Fordham said. “The more people learn about history, the more they learn there is more to know. History is never completely finished.”