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.
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?