Many observers have written over the years that South Carolina seems to inhabit some parallel universe, a place of different facts, different truths, maybe even a whole different reality than the rest of the United States. Here in the Palmetto State, a large number of white people still insist that the Civil War was fought over something other than slavery, that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with the state’s racist heritage, and that race relations here are just hunky-dory.
There are many reasons — both cultural and institutional — for these popular delusions. My favorite malefactor is Mary C. Simms Oliphant. The name will sound familiar to many South Carolinians of a certain age. She was the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, the enormously popular 19th-century novelist, Southern nationalist, and defender of slavery. More importantly, she wrote the official state history used in public schools for half a century. My parents used Oliphant’s books in the 1930s; I used them in the 1960s. Generations of minds were warped by their racist and Southern apologist attitudes.
These are some of the things I learned from my 1958 edition of The History of South Carolina: “The Africans were used to a hot climate,” Oliphant wrote. “They made fine workers under the Carolina sun.” Oliphant defended slaveholders and their “peculiar institution” this way: “Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.”
Oliphant felt that slavery was a necessary but benign institution and described it this way: “Most masters treated their slaves kindly … the law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick.” Elsewhere, she writes, “Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter’s interest to have them healthy and contented.” That there were so few slave uprisings in South Carolina “speaks well for both whites and Negroes,” she writes.
During and immediately after the Civil War, Oliphant writes, “The Negroes for the most part stayed on the plantations or farms … The relationship between the whites and Negroes on the plantations was at this time very friendly. Most of the slaves had proved their affection and loyalty to their masters … For more than four years the women and children had remained on the land with only the Negroes to protect them.”
But things soon changed. Here is Oliphant’s very unreconstructed view of Reconstruction: “For the following eight years South Carolina was governed largely by a ruthless band of thieves.” Carpetbaggers “took advantage of the ignorance and lack of experience of the Negroes … Those who did not vote Republican were threatened and mistreated. Moreover, the Republicans had the encouragement of Congress and the backing of federal troops.”
Oliphant adds, “The new legislature was made up chiefly of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Negroes under their influence … Many members of the legislature could neither read nor write.”
But truth and justice were restored, Oliphant assured her young charges, by men in hoods and robes: “The sight of the mounted klansmen in their white robes was enough to terrorize the Negroes. When the courts did not punish Negroes who were supposed to have committed crimes, the Klan punished them.”
Later editions of Oliphant’s book were somewhat toned down, but this was by and large the official history of South Carolina — taught to black students as well as white — until 1984.
Oliphant’s primary way of dealing with black people in South Carolina history was to ignore them. In her 432-page text are hundreds of illustrations, yet blacks are depicted in only nine. Of those nine, two show blacks picking cotton, one is a 19th-century engraving showing blacks running a cotton gin, while another shows blacks hauling cotton bails on the wharves in Charleston. The only black person identified by name in the entire book is Denmark Vesey, the accused organizer of a failed slave revolt in 1822.
The keepers of South Carolina’s history, archives, and monuments have been ignoring black people for generations. This weekend we begin to correct that with two days of scholarship and observances honoring Civil War hero and Reconstruction reformer Robert Smalls. It is part of the Civil War sesquicentennial observance in the city where that terrible conflict began. The organizers of this four-year series of events are determined to avoid the mistakes of the centennial observance 50 years ago. These events will be dignified and historically inclusive. This weekend’s observance will be a small step toward understanding that war and its aftermath. (For more on Robert Smalls, check out our cover story.)