Rewind the tape of time to Dec. 20, 2010. It’s been exactly 150 years since South Carolina’s gauntlet-throwing departure from the United States of America, and re-enactors in hoop dresses and wool coats are filing into the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium for a Secession Ball put on by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Outside the Gaillard, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are protesting with a candlelight vigil. They have carried picket signs all day: “Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism,” “S.C. Suffers from the ‘Confederacy of the Mind.'”
To make matters worse, the celebratory ball is getting press across the nation. Michael Allen knows he has to do something.
“I realized once we got to December, the game was on,” says Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service.
The signing of the Ordinance of Secession was the first of many anniversaries coming down the line. In Charleston, from 2011 to 2015, every battle, proclamation, and death from the Civil War will have its sesquicentennial, and it’s likely that Allen, 50, will have a hand in most of the commemorations. Allen has advised leaders from most of the major Charleston-area historic sites since he came to town in 1980, and he is coordinator of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
After the Secession Ball snafu, Allen devised a plan: He would call leaders from the NAACP and the Sons of Confederate Veterans to his office, and they would air their grievances face to face.
And so, the day before New Year’s Eve, in a classroom at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, Dot Scott and the Rev. Joseph Darby of the NAACP sat down in plastic chairs next to Jeff Antley and Randy Burbage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I said, ‘Have the four of you all ever been in the same room together?’ ” Allen says. “I said, ‘You all talked about each other in the paper and on the television and the radio, but have you ever sat with each other before today?’ ”
By their recollection, they had not.
Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, remembers the meeting as an illustration of what she calls Allen’s precarious situation.
“I really do think he’s doing an awesome job,” Scott says. “But I wouldn’t want to be in his position. It’s one of the big stories in our American history, but it’s one of the ugly stories in our American history.”
It’s 1967 in the segregated town of Kingstree, S.C., and young Michael Allen is sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders to get a glimpse of Martin Luther King Jr. Allen doesn’t understand why a preacher from Georgia is causing such a commotion; he just knows that gobs of people want to hear him speak.
Allen doesn’t understand a lot of things yet. He doesn’t know why every funeral he attends has a bouquet with a clock in it showing the time of death. He doesn’t know why his friends’ mothers sweep the front yards with grass-straw brooms.
Later, in a freshman history class at S.C. State University in the late ’70s, he learns that his ancestors carried those traditions with them when they came to North America in chains. Leaving the historically black university in 1980 as an intern to give tours to mostly white crowds at Fort Sumter, he discovers that not everyone is interested in hearing about African-American history. In fact, some of what they know is wrong.
“People could bring all kinds of things out to Fort Sumter that they got from tour guides, from carriages, they got from grandmother, they got from books,” Allen says. “It became apparent that some things we were saying might have been contrary to what they were taught.”
At that point, the National Park Service’s Fort Sumter tours didn’t explicitly discuss the role of the issue of slavery in the Civil War, but he sensed that his presence made people uncomfortable.
Allen still has the first narrative guide book the NPS issued to him. There was not much context to it, he says, when it came to the political debates raging away from the cannonfire. Today, most Fort Sumter tours begin at Liberty Square, a small museum on the peninsula where visitors learn about the events leading up to the fort’s bombardment. Allen helped make Liberty Square a reality in 2001, along with a revision of the tour curriculum in the ’90s. But in the ’80s, as a recent college graduate with little sway in the agency, he held his tongue.
Allen got bold in 1992, when the NPS transferred him to an office at the newly opened historic site on the former plantation of U.S. Constitution co-author Charles Pinckney.
“It was brand new, so it wasn’t held hostage by the trappings of the past,” Allen says. It was at the site, where enslaved Africans were as much a part of the historical narrative as Pinckney’s family, that Allen cut his teeth in the art of racial diplomacy.
Carlin Timmons, a park ranger who worked with Allen to overhaul the Fort Sumter exhibits, says she has seen a change in tourists’ outlooks since she came to Charleston 40 years ago.
“I think people are no longer interested in romanticizing the past,” Timmons says. She says cannons, uniforms, and hoop skirts are great ways to grab people’s attention, “but then, hopefully, you can give them a bigger message. Hopefully, people are interested in race relations.”
Valerie Perry has asked Michael Allen’s advice on sticky issues more than once since meeting him in the early 90s.
“If there’s ever a tense situation racially, he has a wonderful way of defusing things and making people look at challenges in an objective manner,” says Perry, who helps direct tours at the Aiken-Rhett and Nathaniel Russell Houses, both owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation.
Allen says historic homes used to gloss over the history of slavery within their walls. “The building magically appeared. Food was magically served or cooked. Repairs magically occurred.”
Not so at the houses Perry manages. Today at the Aiken-Rhett House, tours pass through the back lot, kitchen house, and slave quarters before ever entering the main house. The reminders of slavery are explicit and personal.
In her professional life, Perry reached out to Allen for help when the Foundation wanted to update the tours and signage at the houses to reflect African-American history. In her personal life, as president of the diverse Wagener Terrace Neighborhood Association from 1999 to 2002, she asked for his advice when a racially charged debate arose in her neighborhood.
Some Wagener Terrace homes were slated for demolition, and some of Perry’s neighbors resented the lack of historical preservation as a symptom of racist politics. Perry told Allen that she worried she had been inarticulate in fielding her neighbors’ concerns.
“He would just laugh and say, ‘Half the time we’re not articulate and we put our foot in it, and we have to step back and then move forward,’ ” she says.
Perry’s experience with Allen is not unique. Since coming to Charleston, he has offered advice to leaders at Middleton Place, Boone Hall Plantation, and the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission.
George McDaniel, executive director at Drayton Hall, says he and Allen have similar goals. He arrived in 1989 and had many of the same frustrations Allen did with African-American history exhibits that lacked breadth and depth. He and Allen are bridge builders, he says, and they both aim to educate.
“Education is different from preaching,” McDaniel says. “You’ve got to understand where people are and work with them.”
Allen is a preacher, too, though. For the past nine years, he and his wife, Latanya, have run Beyond the Church Walls Ministry in Charleston. He sees his work with Civil War memorials as a spiritual responsibility. “This is an awkward thing, and I have to walk through it knowing it is awkward, but knowing that I can help people by being steadfast in it.”
Ultimately, December’s Secession Ball dustup can be explained as a matter of word choice. The Sons of Confederate Veterans initially used the word “ball” to describe the event, while the NAACP used words like “terrorist” and “traitor” to describe Confederate soldiers, raising the ire of Secession Ball attendees.
At the Dec. 30 meeting, the people on both sides of the debate (Antley and Burbage for the SCV Scott and Darby for the NAACP) made the same arguments they had been making to the media. Antley, who is commander of the Sons’ seven Charleston chapters, defended the use of the word “ball” from a financial standpoint: At $100 a head, would you rather sell tickets to a wake or a party?
And the Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the NAACP Charleston branch, held to his stance that attacking Union forces was an act of treason. At one point in the discussion, he raised the perennial issue of removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia.
Then there was the age-old question: Why did the South secede? True to form, Antley and Burbage said it was about states’ rights and limited government; Scott and Darby said the issue was slavery.
So what was the upshot of a meeting where nothing new was said and no agreements were reached? For starters, it tore down a psychological wall. The contenders spoke face to face, and they pulled no punches.
“Frankly,” Darby says, “I think that it was positive in that it got people to talk frankly. … Before, it was just TV interviews. You shoot your best shot, the other person shoots his best shot.”
Secondly, the combatants seem to have softened — subtly — in regards to each other’s historical interpretations. Antley explained that part of the Sons’ mission is to protect the good name of Confederate soldiers, who were, after all, their ancestors.
At the next major sesquicentennial event after the meeting, the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, the mood was markedly more somber. There was no gala. There were no protests.
Darby says he chose not to attend because the shelling of the fort simply didn’t resonate with him. He does plan to attend commemorations of the Emancipation Proclamation and of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s assault on Fort Wagner.
That’s fine in Allen’s eyes. In his 31 years at the national parks, Allen has learned that people try to see themselves in history. “We’ll have to talk about all the stories of the Civil War,” Allen says. “We cannot demonize the calendar.”
As for the issue of first causes, Allen aligns himself with the National Park Service, which holds the official stance that secession was about slavery.
“I’m standing on this,” he says, thumping an NPS pamphlet titled “Slavery: The Cause and Catalyst of the Civil War” like a paperback Bible.
Antley says he has no interest in locking horns with a federal agency on the topic. He is wary, however, that the NAACP might protest future Civil War anniversary memorials.
“Any time we do something to honor the Confederate soldier, it tends to draw some line in the sand that they think they need to be on the other side of,” he says.
When it comes to Civil War memorials, words count — so much so that even the great-granddaughter of a man who escaped slavery by commandeering a Confederate transport ship does not want to use the word “celebrate.”
Helen Boulware Moore, who curates a traveling exhibit about her great-grandfather Robert Smalls, has been talking with Michael Allen about how to commemorate the anniversary of Smalls and his family’s flight from the Charleston harbor in May 1862.
After his daring departure, he founded the S.C. Republican Party, became a U.S. Representative, and created the first free and compulsory public school system.
The anniversary of the escape is still nearly a year out, but Allen is already planning for detractors. He says some people in the South see Smalls as a thief and a traitor for surrendering a stolen ship to Union forces.
Moore, however, has never met someone who made such a claim. If there are panel discussions on the sesquicentennial in 2012, she is certain someone will want to argue about the war’s causes, but she does not plan to raise the issue.
“This commemoration is not about what the Civil War was about,” Moore says. “It’s about the gift, if you will, that Robert Smalls presented.”
Looking at everything from the Fort Sumter overhaul to the Secession Ball brouhaha to Civil War memorials yet to come, Michael Allen’s peers describe his job as a walk along a thin line.
“He’s trying to do his job, and I think he’s tried very hard to do what he feels is right in terms of being inclusive,” Scott says.
In a cramped nook inside a circa-1828 farmhouse, Allen’s office is more or less immaculate, with clearly labeled tan filing cabinets and little to distract him on the plain white walls. On his desk, he allows himself a few trinkets: a tiny model of Fort Sumter, a disproportionately larger model of a cannon, and some black cherub figurines.
“The earlier part of my life was cloaked in segregation,” he says, remembering the commotion that ensued when his father became the first black man to deliver mail in Kingstree. “We laugh about it now, when I tell my kids about it.”
On the job, too, he spends a lot of time telling people what happened before they were born. His line of work? Sharing old stories, whole and unembellished.