“Free People of Color” in Dixie

This article is the abbreviated address that I made at the Upcountry Literary Festival 2017, at the University of South Carolina, in Union South, Carolina.

Some people come for the land down under (Australia). I come from the land where old times are not forgotten.

I started my presentation by singing the old spiritual entitled, Wade in the Water, God’s Gonne Trouble the Water. This song is part of our cultural southern music heritage which reaches back into antebellum and perhaps colonial times. I heard it song a lot in my childhood and I was always left asking myself, “Why the hell would you wade in the water if you know God’s going to trouble the water?” Later when I was older I realized that it’s a partition for you to venture forth on an act of faith.

A few weeks ago when I opened with that song, a lady in the audience gave me the biblical scripture from which the song takes its inspiration, John 5:1-9. In that story, it is troubled waters that have the power of healing. So in that spirit, what I write may trouble the water for some of us but I’m hoping that you will remember that troubled waters can be healing waters.
However, before we dive into those “troubled waters” there is another verse from the song entitled, The Yankees Came to Baldwin that I’d like you to keep in mind which goes as follows, “Jeff Davis is a gentleman, Abe Lincoln is a fool. Jeff Davis rides a dapple gray, Abe Lincoln rides a mule.” You should see the looks on the faces of elementary school children when I sing that line. I then say to them, “point of view children, it’s all about point of view.”

As a Civil War re-enactor, I re-enact as my 4th great grandmother, Julia Eagan a free woman of color who lived with my 4th great grandfather, Anon Eagan on a farm that they owned in Wilson County Tennessee in 1860. They were free in 1850 living in the same location so Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with their freedom and truth be known Mr. Lincoln was working diligently to see that all “free people of color” would be shipped out of America. He believed they took jobs and land away from white men and women. So when Mr. Lincoln’s invading Army attacked the southland, it is not hard to understand why my 4th great grandparents would have supported the Confederacy.

That’s why I wrote a book for children or adults if you do not know the history, entitled Fighting for Freedom: A Documented Story. I wanted our children to have a book to tote to school, so they could share with pride their Confederate ancestors. I use the old Gullah word tote because I grew up in middle Tennessee, never having been to South Carolina or Georgia but that word for carry/take had made its way to middle Tennessee with my Gullah/Geechee ancestors. So I choose to use tote here in memory of them. I am also one of the contributing authors of a book published by The Society of Independent Southern Historians entitled, Understanding the War Between the States, 2015.

I want us to be able to study and share the history of our southern ancestors without shame, fear, or hate. I want us to understand that if we openly study and share our history in the absence of political correctness, we will discover a sometime tragic and/or comical history of fools because it is after all a history of human beings. But far more often we will discover a saga which is filled with heroes and heroines which is uplifting and has the power to instill us with pride.

I want people to know that initially, the state of bondage in this country had very little to do with the color of one’s skin. There were Native American, European and African slaves in what would become the United States of America.

For example: “The great-grandfather of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate military genius came to colonial America as a convict. The elder Jackson (John) had been found guilty of larceny and sentenced to death before having the sentence commuted to seven years’ servitude in America. He met the woman who would become “Stonewall’s” great-grandmother (Elizabeth Cummins) on the prison ship, Litchfield which departed from London with 150 convicts. She, too, was escaping a death sentence for larceny. They landed in Annapolis in 1749,” … that’s 105 years after my most distant African ancestor who was born in Virginia around 1644. “John and Elizabeth were purchased by different owners but stayed in touch and eventually married.” Source: James H. Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamount and the History of an African American Family, Fordham University Press, New York 2013.

When did bonded servants (slaves) become black? When Europeans had emptied the jails and land of all the poor white people that they could spare. Put simply, there were not enough of them to build the new world. And in Africa, black people were selling black people on the market. It was a no brainer. Thus the explosion of the trans-Atlantic African slave trade to the new world. It is true that what happened during the trans-Atlantic Slave trade is filled with tragic ugliness.

But what is not talked about during today’s reign of political correctness is: (1) Within the southeastern United States more times than not, our ancestors found ways to work together to successfully build a strong society committed to freedom. (2) Initially bonded servants from Africa were treated much the same as bonded servants from Europe. They were given their freedom after a designated number of years of service. True some heinous masters did not honor the terms of their contracts and many black indentured servants never obtained their freedom but that was also true with white indentured servants. (3) The success that people of African descent had in gaining their freedom during colonial and antebellum times. They built strong families that contributed to the growth and wealth of American society. (4) The success by many slaves in creating enough wealth to purchase their freedom or to own businesses and dominate the service and mechanical industry as slaves particularly in the southern United States. And finally (5) The majority of the population in key southern port cities and throughout the country sides were of African descent which means they dominated and reaped a portion of the benefits of the wealth of those port cities and country sides. Here are a few examples from key southern states in 1860 (total population followed by percentage of slaves):

South Carolina: 703,812 57% slaves
Mississippi: 791,396 55% slaves
Louisiana: 709,290 47% slaves
Alabama: 964,296 45% slaves
Georgia: 1,057,329 44% slaves
North Carolina: 992,667 33% slaves
Virginia: 1,596,079 31% slaves

Source: Peter M. Bergman and Mort N. Bergman, The Chronological History of the Negro in America, The New American Library, 1969.

Please keep in mind, the statistics above refer only to the slave population. When you factor in “free people of color” and whites who did not know or did not admit to their African heritage, the percent of the population of people in the south of African descent, grows from an average of 33% to somewhere between 33-70% of the population, being people of African descent. And to those who shout “Black Lives Matter,” start telling this history.

Why have I shared this information with you? Have seen the movie “Invictus”, directed by Clint Eastwood, with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in the leading roles? It’s a story about Nelson Mandela, South Africa, healing and reconciliation. I strongly recommend it to you for viewing. I have shared this early history of southern America because I want us to understand that regardless to what we have been dogmatically taught, racial hatred and intolerance were not an all invasive, ever pervasive, and perverse integral part of the cultural history of the south. That overwhelming image of the south was created and nurtured during the last one hundred fifty years following the Civil War and Reconstruction. If we do not address this misrepresentation of our history and do not heal the cultural divide between us, we are destined for self-destruction. We are in this boat together. We sink or steer to safety together. It is my hope that we will follow the example of our ancestors when they faced an invading enemy. They stood and fought together. I pray we be blessed and wise enough to do the same.

Have I troubled the water enough for you today? Good. Be bold. Become an historian and help me tell this story. Stand tall and proudly shout, “I come from the land where old times are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away Dixieland.”

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