The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

The traveling public today “expects a black experience,” says Dorothy Spruill Redford, director of Somerset Place, a restored antebellum plantation far off the beaten track in Creswell, North Carolina. Redford, whose own ancestors were slaves at Somerset Place, instructs her guides to “mention slavery within the first twenty sentences” and to keep talk about furniture to a minimum. “It’s no longer enough to have a docent standing there welcoming visitors with ‘Hi! This is the home of Josiah Collins.’”

Redford’s book Somerset Homecoming, an account of her research into the plantation’s slave genealogy, was well reviewed when it was published in 1988. In 1986 Somerset Place held its first homecoming for the descendants of of the plantation’s twenty-one original slave families. Last year’s Labor Day gathering was attended by twenty-five hundred celebrants.

Of all the aspects of black history, slavery is especially riddled with misconceptions. To set the record straight, Williamsburg’s Robert Watson speaks of the need to “demythify” such falsehoods as: all blacks were slaves (“A lot were free”), and all whites were Simon Legree (only one white man in four owned slaves in 1770). Even the notion that slaves alone occupied the lowest rung on the economic ladder is challenged by the African-American interpretive program. At the reconstructed slave quarters at Carter’s Grove, a genial black interpreter named Carla points to the bare walls and dirt floor and asks, “How is everybody else living in 1770? They’re almost all living just like this, black or white.”

Not every visitor likes that view, and racial incidents, although rare, do happen. One time a white visitor to Williamsburg demanded that Watson, after he had delivered a lecture on African-American history, express gratitude that his descendants had been brought from Africa to this country. “My ancestors might have been kings and queens in Africa,” Watson told him.

At Somerset Place, Dorothy Redford believes that most incidents stem from mutual misunderstanding. “We have been segregated for so long, we no longer know what is offensive to one another,” she said. At a recent training session for teachers, a woman asked Redford’s slave persona, “There are more of you [slaves] than them. Why don’t you just take your things and go?”

“I could explain it to a fourth grader,” Redford said. “There are more of you [pupils] than teachers; why do you do what they say?’ But how do you explain the nature of power to a teacher?

“I could only answer: ‘What things? Property doesn’t own property. And go where?’”

 

I stood on the corner of Seventeenth Street and Fifth Avenue North, in Birmingham, Alabama, midway through a trip that was taking me through much of the South on a visit to black-history sites. This stop was special, an opportunity to take myself back to May 1963, when I, as a young reporter for Life magazine, was present at the confrontations involving Bull Connor’s police, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s school-age demonstrators, and angry blacks of Birmingham.

It was five days I have never forgotten, five days of fire hoses, police dogs, wild chases through Kelly-Ingram Park, the arrests of hundreds of black demonstrators and two white journalists (myself and a Life photographer, Charles Moore), a time of violence, moving scenes in black churches, and the excitement of seeing history being made.

On my way across the park, I paused at a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. “His dream liberated Birmingham from itself,” the inscription read. This was a recurring theme of the civil rights movement: that it was the oppressors who were in bondage and needed to be free.

Other than the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, nothing around the park looked the same. The seedy buildings were gone, as well as the store where we had purchased soft drinks—what one local reporter called “nigger orange”—during lulls in the violence. In their place was urban architecture at its most nondescript: the windowless facade of a telephone company high rise, a parking garage, a nursing home.

A young woman in the rectory unlocked a side door of the church and led me through the basement up into the sanctuary. The high pulpit and the graceful curve of the balcony were familiar to me, but there was no way to recapture the emotion of the night when, against police orders, the photographer and I climbed through a back window of the church to attend a rally of demonstrators. There we were immediately overwhelmed by the stirring words, singing, clapping, and the conviction that this was a movement that couldn’t be stopped. Charles Moore, a white native of Alabama, remembers photographing the scene with tears in his eyes.