Into the Archives: South Carolina, by Prof Emily West

In April 2023 I visited South Carolina to undertake archival research. This trip would not have been possible without a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant, and I am grateful to them for funding this trip.

I first visited South Carolina during my PhD research in the mid 1990s, and while I have been on a few subsequent visits to the state for short research trips and conferences, I’d not had the opportunity to undertake sustained archival research for a generation. Raising two children made any substantial trips abroad impossible. Luckily most of my post PhD research has been via electronically-available primary sources accessible within the UK. This technology has undoubtedly changed the world of history, opening up a whole range of documents to international researchers, especially those digitized by wealthy institutions receptive to technological change.

Yet I also believe that it is so important to conduct research in situ. We cannot ever truly understand the history of a place without spending time there and immersing ourselves in that culture. Of course, this comes with its own set of issues, not least the financial hurdles one has to overcome in order to research abroad.

Thanks to my external funding I finally found myself back in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and I was very much looking forward to spending my time in the beautiful South Caroliniana library (the name refers to all things Carolinian) located in the majestic ‘horseshoe’ square of the University of South Carolina, thankfully spared Sherman’s forces during the Civil War, unlike much of the city:

Image of South Caroliniana library at the University of South Carolina. A large building with 4 white pillars at the front and large trees in front of it.

Sadly, however, the building was closed for a major renovation project, the archives temporarily moved to the main Thomas Cooper University Library, also beautiful (I’m a fan of mid-century modern!), although much more contemporary:

Image of the Thomas Cooper University Library with steps walking up to it

Thomas Cooper, an American politician born in London 1759, held enslaved people, did many prominent men in the State, and I devoted my visit here to enslavers records, seeking to examine the ways in which enslavers sought to impost communal, ‘efficient’ feeding regimes on their plantations, focussing on the women who fed other enslaved infants, children, and adults.

The second part of my trip involved a visit to the even more beautiful environs of Charleston, a port city in the lowcountry, famed for its unique Gullah culture. Here I worked in the College of Charleston’s Addlestone (named after Marlene and Nathan Addlestone, prominent in Charleston’s twentieth-century Jewish community) Library’s Special Collections Department, exploring materials from the South Carolina Historical Society:

Photograph of the entrance to the College of Charleston's Addleston Library, South Carolina Historical Society Archives

Most of the evidence I consulted here consisted of postbellum (after the Civil War of 1861-65) reminiscences by former enslavers, and thankfully the majority of these were typed, although the content remains challenging to read because of racist content.

Obviously, with enslaved people being forbidden by state laws from reading and writing, my research is plagued by what historians have termed archival silences. Gendered, racial and class discrimination means that my topics tend to go unindexed. And this can lead to frustrating days of scrolling through nineteenth century, hard to read prose while finding nothing. My eyes are weaker than they were in the 1990s, despite a selection of glasses to choose from! I have to read my sources (when I can find them) laterally, whether ‘against the grain’ or ‘along the bias grain’ as some historians have written. This means when I find useful evidence I tend to inadvertently shout ‘yes’ and raise my arms on the air, much to the alarm of the archivists and genealogists surrounding me.

While my trip had some inevitable frustrations, it was rewarding to obtain more information about the eating regimes imposed by enslavers and the women they utilised to feed the enslaved within plantation quarters. I also supplemented my ongoing research into wetnursing in the pre-Civil War South, which will also form part of my book.

Sometimes, too, evidence from the past can really strike at your heart. Although not directly related to my book project, I was struck by the testimony of a woman, Mrs Carrie Laurens/Lawrence (the spelling varies) who had, in 1928, written a letter to a member of the Ball family who had previously enslaved her. Mrs Laurens/Lawrence asked for financial help as she was unwell — there is surely a future research project to be had in these individual requests for what is essentially reparations for slavery?

While I couldn’t find a record of any outcome to this letter, in 1934 another member of the Ball family interviewed Mrs Laurens/Lawrence about her memories of being enslaved. She remembered how her mother had a disagreement with their white ‘mistress’ (the term used for enslavers’ wives) after which Carrie and her mother fled the household. One of her extended family members (also enslaved and a cook for the Ball family), subsequently hid her and her mother for two weeks two weeks in the cellar of her enslaver’s house at the Southwest corner of Vanderhorst and Pitt Street in Charleston.

Looking up the location I saw this junction was just two blocks from the library. So, I visited during my lunch break. It was hard to tell whether the house at the junction was the original one, and what the exact location of ‘Southwest’ was. I suspect Carrie and her mother hid in this house:

But opposite was an even grander home, more archetypal of the homes of Charleston’s enslavers (nearly all built ‘sideways’ because city authorities taxed Charleston’s homes on their frontage):

Whichever dark and damp cellar Carrie hid in she presumably felt scared and afraid for her future (indeed she was later sold with her mother). It was an honour to try to retrace her whereabouts, to piece together part of her life journey, to imagine how she must have felt, and to reflect on her experiences. The everyday lives of enslaved girls and women appear all too infrequently in Charleston’s public history. Plaques everywhere commemorate enslavers and Confederates, and in the city museum, one can even buy a tapestry kit of the house owned by the Manigaults, one of the state’s richest slaveholding families (with apologies for the poor-quality photo!):

Carrie Laurens/Lawrence’s life will no doubt remain plaque free, but I felt grateful to be in Charleston and, in writing up my book, to contribute to a rather different version of history.

Prof Emily West is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in race and gender during Slavery in the US South.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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