Ancesters of slave owners should be honored only ‘behind closed doors’
An average day for a park ranger at Fort Sumter consisted of giving a 10-15 minute history tour, then parading the grounds of where the first shots of the Civil War took place.
One day while parading the grounds I was approached by a woman who realized, from my nametag, that we share the same last name. It was later revealed, during our conversation, that we were from the same, Barnwell, county. Immediately I made the connection that we were distant relatives, bound together by the foul chains of slavery.
Here, ironically, at Fort Sumter the spirit of reconciliation was in the air and another “civil” war, within the Harley family, was taking place. After this “family reunion”, my curiosity led me to offer her my contact information, with the hope that we could collaborate on finding more information about my family; outside of Ancestry.com and the 100th governor of South Carolina. Unfortunately, my invitation was declined and I never saw or heard from her again.
Fast forward to April 29, 2017, I came across a letter in The People-Sentinel, written by another (James) Harley responding to Mr. Brence Pernell’s piece on Confederate monuments in Barnwell County.
Mr. Harley said, “The southern people did not systemically round up African slaves and kill them by the millions just because of who they were.” To this I say, slaves were systemically rounded up and packed underneath slaves ships and forced to survive the most horrid conditions. Mr. Harley said “sometimes” slaves were mistreated, suggesting that they were treated like normal human beings majority of the time. To this I say, tell that to a former slave. Thank God, we are fortunate enough to have slave narratives, written by the enslaved themselves, to give us direct insight on their everyday lives.
Mr. James Harley stated that only 5.9 percent of southern families owned slaves, insinuating that the majority did not fight in the Civil War to maintain slavery. To this I say I would have to check those numbers but if they are correct, the majority of the other 94.1 percent accepted the institution. There were few, Grimke sisters for example, who spoke out publicly against slavery and advocated immediate emancipation.
Mr. Harley also mentioned that his mother’s ancestors did not fight to preserve slavery but were defending their homes from northern aggressors. To this I say, your ancestors were not forced to join the Confederacy but, by joining the cause, they adopted the mission of the slave-owning aristocracy, which was to preserve slavery.
Was Lincoln supposed to sit back and let the South have their own nation, keep their slaves, and live Happily Ever After? Even prudence is against this and I understand that Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist but his mission did eventually intersect with that of the abolitionists.
Mr. Harley also mentioned that General Sherman treated his ancestor’s slaves so badly that many of them returned to his great-great-grandfather’s plantation and were treated by his great-great-grandmother when they were sick. To this I say, it is a fact that many slaves returned to their plantations because the plantation was all they knew. This would probably explain why my family is still in Barnwell County today.
And no one is painting Sherman as a saint. Even black soldiers who fought in the Union army were not seen as equals by their white leadership. And I’m sure that there were numerous of Nazi soldiers who displayed acts of kindness to Jewish people under their watch. The difference is your great-great-grandfather had the power to free his slaves under the principle that slavery was morally wrong, but he did not.
Free people in the south who had the courage to speak out against slavery, knowing that it wasn’t popular or safe to do so are the ones who deserve to be remembered publically and have monuments.
But I’m hesitant to be too critical of Mr. Harley’s ancestors for I understand Frederick Douglass when he said of his mistress, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me... She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities.”
Mr. Harley mentioned that Robert E Lee did not own slaves until getting married to a descendent of George Washington but he immediately freed them. To this point I say, you are correct. Robert E. Lee did free slaves given to him by his father-in-law but only because his father-in-law’s will required him to so within 5 years of his death. Lee took five years to free them all and believed that slaves were not smart enough to vote.
The true heroes of the south are the Grimke Sisters and slaves who persisted and resisted.
You can honor your ancestors in your own quarters but honoring them publicly is disrespectful to slaves and their descendants.
Finally, the legendary General Stonewall Jackson. Mr. Harley you say that he taught his slaves to read and led them to salvation, but he still supported a morally corrupt institution. I’m not disregarding his bravery on the battlefield or faith but he should be honored only behind closed doors.
I will conclude by saying that there are only a few monuments honoring slaves across the south. African-Americans are forced to honor their ancestors amongst themselves. It should be the same for the decedents of those who fought in the Confederacy.
This is the United States of America and we should remember those who fought for the ideals found in our Constitution.
The past and change are both painful but we must not run from them if we want to see a united Barnwell County.