In 2010, the head of Clemson’s English Department published a collection of writings from 19th century enslaved people, I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives. Included in this collection was the memoir, Before The War, and After the Union, of a Charleston native, Samuel Aleckson. Professor Susanna Ashton hadn’t seen this piece of writing mentioned much by other scholars, and it was one she determined to be pretty rare. “His [Aleckson’s] chapter stood out,” says Ashton. “Because everyone else I could tell a great deal about their life, but his had very little information.”
Little did Ashton know that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the lack of information about Samuel Aleckson; she simply had the wrong last name. “When the book came out, The State ran a piece on it. As a result, I got a letter from one of Sam Aleckson’s descendants. He told me that he was happy to see his relative featured, and that the family had long known about his book, but didn’t know anyone else had heard of it,” says Ashton. “And in a ‘p.s.’ he said, ‘You know his name wasn’t Aleckson. It was Williams.”
And from there, Ashton had the crucial, correct information she needed to really delve into the life of Samuel Williams. “I decided to go back into it,” she says. “Now that I know his real name, what was his story? Why did he write this account?”
Designed as a collaboration with the College of Charleston and the Avery Research Center, a digital exhibit is now available online documenting the life and work of Samuel Williams by using both his memoir and other historical sources. An interactive timeline offers a detailed look at Williams’ life: Williams was born in 1852 to parents Susan and Alexander; in his early years Williams resided with his father’s owners, a family he referred to as the Danes, on Guignard Street in what is today downtown Charleston. On Dec. 11, 1861 Williams witnessed the Great Charleston Fire writing later in his memoir, “we saw the flames leaping up … The sparks seemd to rain down from the heavens as we ran.” Williams served as an “officer’s boy” for the Confederate command on James Island. After the war, the Williams family reunited and moved into 5 Princess St. in Charleston. In 1871, Williams opened his first bank account with the Freedman’s Bank; he worked as a porter in an office on Broad Street.
The highlights of Williams’ life continue; in 1890 he moved with his second wife, Henrietta, and their children to Springlake, Vt. In 1910, Williams became ill and fearing he might go blind, began to write his life story.
“He changed the names, particularly of white people,” says Ashton of Williams’ memoir. “We can speculate why he did that,” she adds. The digital exhibit offers several possible reasons for the name changes: “He may not have wished to offend them or reveal intimate details the current descendants might not have appreciated; he may have wished to protect his own family members still living in Charleston from retribution; he might have wanted to embroider stories with impunity … most of all, whether consciously or unconsciously, he might have wished to effectively re-center the story upon his own experiences and the experiences of his family members.”
While we can’t say for sure why Williams wrote what he wrote — or why he chose to use a pen name — we do know that he wrote fondly of Charleston in Before The War. “He says so many loving things about Charleston,” says Ashton. “There were white women who helped teach him to read. And then he’ll add in a sentence like, ‘Then my mother was sold away and I didn’t see her until after the war.” It is this confluence of Williams’ daily life with the devastation of his position as an enslaved human that renders his story all the more powerful. “It’s important that we look at a history that is conflicted and complicated — and we look at it with clear eyes,” says Ashton.
Ashton says that contemporary Charleston readers will find a number of familiar names and places in Williams’ Before the War, including: Circular Congregational Church, St. Michael’s church bell, and Secessionville Road on James Island. “It’s very specific to Charleston, [the references] occur in almost no other narrative. It’s very unique to the Lowcountry and really has a pull on how we might look at where we were and where we are, whether black or white South Carolinians.”
Part of looking at Williams’ writing is taking a moment to zoom out — to re-focus on what this slave narrative is really about, and how we can use it to learn more about our own history, and our future. “A lot of people think of slave narratives as being written during the Abolitionist era,” says Ashton. “This is not that. Slavery is over. What he’s trying to write against is forgetting.”
Check the exhibit out online with the Lowcountry Digital Historical Initiative.