Rethinking the end of the commercial rice industry

I ran across this informative article that introduces us to new, mysterious full-color video of African-American men and women reaping rice with sickles in the Lowcountry.

Watch the video and read the full article by reporter Hanna Raskin in The Post and Courier.

From The Post and Courier's July 20, 2016 article "Home movie from the 1940s captures traditional reaping methods at Willtown Bluff"
From The Post and Courier’s July 20, 2016 article “Home movie from the 1940s captures traditional reaping methods at Willtown Bluff”

Historians have described the commercial rice industry ending in the 1890’s as a result of a series of devastating hurricanes. After the Civil War, freed Blacks’ refusal to do “muck work” made repairing the hydraulic irrigation system on which the industry depended (and which was little used during the last years of the war) difficult if not impossible.

New evidence, including this video from Colleton County, should cause us to rethink this position. Commercial rice production may well have continued into the second half of the 20th century and with a free Black labor force. There are many examples of free Black families throughout the Lowcountry growing rice in their farms for consumption into the mid-20th century as well.

What are your thoughts?

My Beginning: Part 4

Editor’s Note: This is the final of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice.

Determined not to weep in front of the class, I spoke very slowly and took long pauses when I felt my voice breaking up.  I told them there were many African-Americans with the last name Fields, not all were from South Carolina.  Not all African-Americans with the surname Fields were from Colleton County, SC.  But, those of us whose ancestors are buried on Myrtle Grove, Smithfield, and Cockfield plantations were one family, my father’s family.  I was very proud to be descended from them.  I was shocked to learn Ambrose Gonzales, whose work unfortunately defined what Gullah meant for so many in the early twentieth century and still appeared in academic debates on Gullah language and identity, had written his racist theories essentially about our family.  He put his despicable thoughts into my ancestors’ mouths.  Gonzales was certainly a product of his time, despicable times.  Those were his shortcomings, not ours.  The air was thick with disbelief as my wide-eyed students hung on my words.  Then, we moved on and discussed the reading.

After my students and I deconstructed Gonzales, I spontaneously flipped the classroom.  I had forewarned the students they would read aloud from Gullah language texts, but promised that I would not subject them to reading Gonzales’ folktales.  I had planned for them to read from Lorenzo Dow Turner‘s study, the first scientific study of the Gullah language.  Instead, I decided that I would read from Gonzales.  It took some of the power away from his incantations.   I knew the dialogue which he put into the mouths of former slaves from Myrtle Grove plantation was a product of his untrustworthy memory and wild imaginings.  Strangely, though, I felt the familiarity of Anna Richards Frazier, my late great grand-mother, and Jim and Mamie Fields, my late grandparents who first introduced me to the Gullah language and culture.  I felt the warmth of my Cousin Katie (Mother Gillard) who, at 105 years young, keeps the Gullah language alive for and in me.

The irony was not lost on me, the expert on the history of West African rice farmers and enslaved Africans on Lowcountry rice plantations finding her ancestors buried on a rice plantation.

My own family is emblematic of the exploitation, neglect, shame, and loss which are the legacy of enslavement. It is carried by the descendants of Africans enslaved on rice plantations in the South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina rice plantations, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and indigo plantations throughout the New World.

To memorialize and lament the sacrifices and sufferings of Africans enslaved on Lowcountry rice plantations, to celebrate the innumerable contributions to the economy of the US South, and to tell our ancestors’ stories, we need a “Requiem for Rice.”

My Beginning: Part 3

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice.

I originally read Ambrose Gonzales through the lens of an academic historian.  Studying Creole languages, I was reading debates among Creole linguists on the origins and nature of Creole languages.  My goal was to acquire interdisciplinary tools to bring something new to my historical study of the Gullah Geechee.

But, I am also a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter.  From spending the last week of August every year from the age of six until my sister went to college, I knew my father’s family in Green Pond.  From driving south on Highway 17 between Charleston and Green Pond as an adult, I learned the highway was built over rice fields as far as the eye Picture1.beching2could see in both directions.  But, I policed the boundary between my academic scholarship and family history to maintain my scholarly objectivity, that “noble dream.”  After encountering my ancestor’s open grave on the rice plantation in Green Pond, this fiction did not matter to me anymore.  As I researched and wrote the history of the Gullah Geechee, highlighting the importance of the experiences of Africans enslaved on rice plantations, I found my ancestors’ graves in plantation cemeteries.  Without looking, I encountered their names and their lives in the plantation sources, and folklore.  The experiences of the great-granddaughter and the academic historian collided, initiating a process that would fundamentally change me as an historian.

With fifteen short minutes before the beginning of my class, it was too late to undo what was now inevitable.  I didn’t know how I was going to stand emotionally naked before my students and discuss a racist rant, which was, by the way, written about Blacks on the same plantation where my family was enslaved, my people.  The show, though, as they say, must go on.  I gathered my files, books, and laptop; I stopped in the ladies room to cry more and try to regain my composure; then, I walked slowly down the long sloping corridors and descended four flights of stairs to the basement classroom.  It was the longest walk I remember taking.  As the students arrived and unpacked their books, they murmured about the readings.  They could not believe that someone could be so racist, that something so racist could be printed and that people would not only read it, but buy it.  Once they settled in, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and made my announcement…

My Beginning: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice.

The standard issue quickly deteriorated, spiraling out of my control, as I began to read folktales from Gonzales’ collection. The first story began, “Joe Fields was the most onery looking darkey on Pon Pon.” I was completely taken aback. When designing my syllabus, I had not thought about Ambrose Gonzales being a descendant of a planter family in Colleton County, South Carolina on the Combahee (pronounced “Cumbee”) River where my paternal grandmother and grandfather traced their lineages. But, I quickly rationalized, Gonzales described this Joe Fields as living on the Pon Pon, not the Combahee. A quick Google search confirmed the Pon Pon was ten miles south of the Combahee as the crow flies. I reassured myself; Joe Fields wasn’t any kin to me.

I wish it could have stopped there, but, I, in my infinite wisdom, had assigned the students to read approximately thirty pages of Gonzales’ folktales. Reluctantly, I continued reading: “Joe, runt as he was, had two sources of pride—the aristocratic lineage of his ‘owners,’ for he had belonged to the Heywards.” Then, I got a taste of Gonzales’ fictionalized version of Lowcountry Blacks’ dialect: “‘Me nyuse to blonx to Mass Clinch.’” He “‘hab him ob’shay, Mistuh Jokok, fuh wu’k ….him hab t’irteen plantesshun ‘puntop Cumbee Ribbuh. Him plant seb’n t’ous’n acre’ rice…..”

“Mass Clinch” Heyward could only be Duncan Clinch Heyward, the governor of South Carolina from 1903-1907 and author of “Seeds of Madagascar.” Heyward also owned Myrtle Grove Plantation from 1910-1918. Nathaniel Heyward who was the largest slaveholder in the US South deeded Myrtle Grove to his grandson Nathaniel Barnwell Heyward by 1851. In the 20th century, Myrtle Grove was merged with Smithfield and Vineyard plantations. Owned by the family of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Smithfield was the setting of Smith’s hauntingly romantic and nostalgic watercolors.

None of my academic training about objectivity and emotional distance or my twenty-two years of researching, writing and teaching about West African rice and rice farmers prepared me to see the disgraceful state of my ancestors’ graves on a South Carolina rice plantation.

Green Pond.Cockfield. 9 2013 130 2

In September 2013, while lecturing in South Carolina, I also conducted genealogical research on my father’s family. After a lot of coaxing, my elder cousin Jonas Fields who was the patriarch of Daddy’s family revealed to me our ancestors are buried and were enslaved on a former plantation in Green Pond, S.C. I did not nor could not understand what Cousin Jonas meant when he said our Fields ancestors are buried in “unmarked” graves. When I finally found my way out to the “grow’d up” cemetery in the woods, I could hardly identify their burial sites, little more than depressions in the ground. Family graves marked with tombs and tombstones were in utter disrepair. The concrete slab covering and wooden coffin inside of one of the ancestral graves on my paternal grandmother’s side were cracked wide open by a large tree limb. In January 2014, my Cousin Lloyd Fields, one of Cousin Jonas’ sons, our friends Drs. Travis Folk and Ade Ofunniyin , and I covered our loved one’s grave with a tarp until we could care for it properly (it has since been repaired).

Cousin Jonas passed away in November 2014. He was the last living relative to know where the Fields’ family’s unmarked graves were located at the Green Pond rice plantation and who was buried in them. A few days before his funeral, I went to the Colleton County Genealogical Society looking for information about a nearby cemetery, hoping to find records on which Fields ancestors were buried there and where. Instead, I found a photograph of my great-grandmother Eliza Fields’ grave at Myrtle Grove Plantation, but I did not know then that she was the same Eliza Fields listed on my family tree. At Cousin Jonas’ burial, my cousin Wilfred Fields, another of Cousin Jonas’ sons, confirmed that his grandmother, my great-grandmother, Eliza was buried at Myrtle Grove.  After Cousin Jonas’ burial, family members discussed the Richards/Frazier/Fields ancestors who are buried on Smithfield Plantation. In February 2015, my father’s cousin Cleveland Frazier told me when he was growing up, the elders in Jerusalem and White Hall AME Churches, where generations of our family had worshiped, still prayed about enslavement on Myrtle Grove plantation. The young people, however, did not know what the words meant. As I made final preparations before my class, my mind raced; why hadn’t I made these connections before?

My Beginning: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four posts where Requiem For Rice Producer and Librettist Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black shares with us how the quest to dig deeper into her own family lineage began. This is the journey that helped to shape the Requiem For Rice. 
edda fields black
Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black

During the last week of classes, I subjected my undergraduate seminar on “Doing Transnational History” to reading excerpts from Ambrose Gonzales’ Black Border. This text is one of the worst examples of an occupational hazard for an historian who writes about the Black experience anywhere in the world during the early modern period. It is a time period in which texts written by Africans about their own experiences are few and far between. Thus, the overwhelming majority of historical sources are written by slave traders, explorers, and missionaries. Most of them have very derogatory things to say about African people especially their physical appearance, social and political structure, and religion.

My twenty plus years of researching, writing, and teaching about pre-colonial and West Africa, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the African Diaspora had made me a reluctant yet de facto expert on racist material. Ambrose Gonzales’ work ranked among the most racist text that I have had the misfortune of reading in a career that has exposed me to many. To make matters even worse, I was inspired by a faculty seminar on a British actress who was famous during the Enlightenment period to have my students read Gullah Geechee folklore aloud in class and “in dialect”.

The class had been forewarned to be prepared. I thought I was prepared too.

The students had read about Gonzales when they read excerpts from Lorenzo Dow Turner’s landmark study, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, and articles by Salikoko Mufwene on the Gullah language and creolization. I rightly anticipated reading Gonzales’ racist theories on the origins of the Gullah language and the folktales he collected—with his fictionalized approximation of Gullah dialogue—would be more than they could stomach. Earlier in the semester, one of my students asked me to put a disclaimer on future readings about enslavement which contained violence—I responded the entire syllabi for most of my African and Diaspora classes would require disclaimers. For Gonzales, however, I gave in and posted a disclaimer about the reading as a Blackboard Announcement:

Dear Class,

I have uploaded excerpts from Gonzales’ “The Black Border.” WARNING, it’s pretty awful (I’ve saved the worst for last!). But, we’ll get through it together on Monday. We will also read some Gullah language texts out loud, but not from Gonzales. I promise. Have a good weekend!

Professor Fields-Black

I thought I had done my due diligence until I settled in to review the readings and prepare for class. On the face of it, Gonzales’ racist rant was worse than I remembered, but about what I expected. He disparaged Western Africa as the “fetid armpit of the Dark Continent” from which “came the first black bondsmen to curse

South Carolina Lowcountry

the Western world.” In describing the peculiarity of a dialect on the West African Coast, which he identified as a precursor of the Gullah language, Gonzales quoted slave trader William Bosman describimg its speakers as “‘Qua-quas,’ because they gabbled like ducks.” He saved his worst diatribe for Africans enslaved in the Lowcountry who he described as “slovenly and careless of speech.” They “seized upon the peasant English” spoken by indentured servants and “wrapped their clumsy tongues about it as well they could, and, enriched certain expressive African words.” Gonzales’ racist theory extended to enslaved Africans’ “flat noses and thick lips,” which acted as anatomical and physiological barriers to enslaved Africans learning to speak standard English:

….with characteristic laziness, these Gullah Negroes took short cuts to the ears of their auditors, using as few words as possible, sometimes making one gender serve for three, one tense for several, and totally disregarding singular and plural numbers.”

I felt a momentary pang of guilt for imposing Ambrose Gonzales on my students. I would have to find a way to turn this into a “teachable moment.”