Descendants of freed slaves recount lives in new book
February 13, 2011
“If more land is lost, writes Frazier, some fear that already imperiled Gullah traditions might be further diminished or even lost. The Coastal Community Foundation is concerned with precisely this trend and how the residential and commercial growth accompanying the 1992 completion of the Mark Clark Expressway (Interstate 526) has and will continue to alter the area’s character.”
Try to imagine that moment when a person who has known only the bonds of slavery is told, “You’re free.” What would be the reaction?
Elation, perhaps. But in many cases, confusion or bewilderment as well. “Free to do what?” “Free to go where?”
It’s understandable why a man or woman, suddenly left to their own devices, might choose to remain close to the place where they had lived most of their lives.
When freedom came at last to slaves on the rice plantations of lower Berkeley County, many stayed to farm the land and raise their families. Often it was in settlements quite near the plantation gates, there to write their own histories.
Four generations have gone by, and now the descendants of those families reveal their joys and sorrows in author Herb Frazier’s “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, and St. Thomas Island, South Carolina,” to be published Tuesday by Evening Post Books.
The book marks a collaboration between Frazier, public relations and marketing manager for Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, and Columbia-based artist John W. Jones, a painter who has sought to bring attention to the everyday lives of Gullah people.
The idea originated with the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina, which commissioned Frazier to write the book.
“But it also had a personal component for me, having grown up in Charleston,” says the author, formerly a reporter for The Post and Courier. “Cainhoy and Huger are words that I heard mentioned in our family’s history, too. My grandmother, Mable McNeil Frazier, who raised me, lives in Cordesville just north of Huger. I later learned that my aunt Blossom Mack was from Berkeley County, so I bumped into a little of my family there as well.”
“Behind God’s Back” compiles varied accounts of the experiences of Gullah people who struggled through the passages of Emancipation, the Great Depression and into the middle of the 20th century, trying to sustain a measure of African lifestyles in rural communities near Charleston. Arguably, more than any other black community in the country, the Gullah people of the coastal area of the Southeastern United States have managed to preserve a greater portion of their cultural heritage.
The question is, “How?”
“The simple explanation is because of the geographic isolation,” says Frazier. “Also, because African-American communities, rural and urban, tend to be close-knit and closed off socially.”
Days gone by
In approaching the descendants for their recollections, primarily individuals in their late 80s and
90s, the author had a distinct advantage.
“People recognize my name from the newspaper, so in many cases, they knew of me. I think that helped. I also think the way you approach people is important. You can’t be too aggressive. You need to be more of a listener than a talker. I usually started the conversation talking about growing up in Ansonborough and where I went to school and church, and that my parents live on Wadmalaw Island.
“I’m from here, so I bring a level of appreciation of, and insight into, what people are about to share.”
Frazier says that as one referral led to another, the project took on a life of its own.
“The people I talked to told it straight, without any embellishments. I think they were honest in their portrayal of the character of the area in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s in terms of how people got along and what they did to get along, how they raised their families.”
Key guidance and assistance was provided to Frazier by activist Fred Lincoln of the Cainhoy-Wando community and from Colonial-era expert Suzanna Smith Miles, a historian formerly of Mount Pleasant who now lives in Gettysburg, Pa.
The stories in “Behind God’s Back” also are drawn from whites who live in the communities of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, St. Thomas and Daniel Island.
Their memories offer another perspective on the sometimes stormy interaction between blacks and whites, most notably the Cainhoy gunfight of 1876, when “black Republicans stood their ground during a political rally to achieve a rare victory against white Democrats in the turbulent period of Reconstruction.”
From a personal standpoint, Frazier always harbored a desire to write something about the area more substantial than a newspaper story. This book filled the bill.
“That inspired me on one level. On another, I realized what I was doing was giving a voice to people who ordinarily are not asked or sought out for their opinions, or their stories. We as journalists so often focus on elected officials and community leaders. But these are just regular people.
“This was a process of inverting the pyramid and putting the emphasis on them. Within their own communities, however, they carry a great deal of respect because of their age and experiences and leadership positions in the church. These older people have a wealth of knowledge and experience they will take with them when they die. It’s important for younger people to sit and listen to these stories that people in their families have.
“We don’t live the same way now. Communities don’t come together to build schools like they once did, nor do they sustain themselves like they did when they could live off the land.”
In some respects, the book echoes the issues raised in Justin Nathanson’s “Bin Yah,” a locally produced documentary film exploring the impact of suburban sprawl on historic black communities in Mount Pleasant.
It was Northern industrialist and philanthropist Harry Frank Guggenheim (1890-1971) who erected a retreat near Cainhoy, where he hunted and entertained celebrity guests. He also owned nearby Daniel Island.
Following Guggenheim’s death, Daniel Island’s rural character underwent a brisk metamorphosis into an upscale neighborhood annexed into the city of Charleston.
Together with other residential and commercial growth on St. Thomas Island and nearby Cainhoy, this transformation has longtime landowners wondering whose ancestral properties might be the next to succumb.
If more land is lost, writes Frazier, some fear that already imperiled Gullah traditions might be further diminished or even lost. The Coastal Community Foundation is concerned with precisely this trend and how the residential and commercial growth accompanying the 1992 completion of the Mark Clark Expressway (Interstate 526) has and will continue to alter the area’s character.
“When Gullah people lived way out in remote areas, they referred to themselves as living ‘Behind God’s Back,’ ” says Frazier. “You had his protection. But when the expressway opened, that isolation was breached.”
Frazier does not say that the proposed extension of I-526 to Johns Island is a good idea or bad idea. But like many, he casts a wary eye.
“When you look at what happened on the east end of 526, that could very well be a harbinger on the James Island and Johns Island end if it is extended. I’m not saying this should not happen. I’m saying there are questions people need to ask up front so that development does not go on unchecked.”