Two Islands – Two Stories – Which One is Yours?

Most of us have heard of Ellis Island. Many of us who have traced our ancestry can lay claim to having descended from someone who came through Ellis Island on their journey to becoming an American citizen.

Prior to 1892 immigration was controlled by individual states. On January 1, 1892 the Federal government opened an official immigration station on Ellis Island. More than 12 million immigrants would arrive in the United States via this island in the next 62 years. The island became a symbolic landmark and immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life saw this island as the doorway to the land of opportunity. A large majority of those who came were from Northern European countries.

Even today Ellis Island is held up as a great symbol of our country and the welcome it gave to immigrants. On a web site devoted to the island it is called “a poetic symbol of the American Dream”

After arriving at the island immigrants were screened for any obvious physical ailments. They also had to fill out a form before boarding the ship with their name, country they were from and some questions that could be used by the legal inspectors before being granting leave to enter the USA. Although some were turned away or kept for many days before being allowed to enter or sent back to their home country, only two percent were denied entry.

Today there is a National Museum of Immigration on the island. The first immigrant to be processed there has a statute in her honor. She has become a well-known historical figure

Annie Moore, 17 year-old arriving from Queenstown, Ireland

Other well known immigrants came through Ellis Island including Bob Hope, Irving Berlin and Cary Grant. Other less well known were Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay and Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku.

This island is celebrated by our nation and it boast its own foundation website who states that its goal is:

The Foundation works to preserve and honor two of our country’s greatest landmarks: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We pursue a diverse range of educational and community building efforts and work to create meaningful connections between island visitors and the dense fabric of American history.

There is a Passenger Search database where you can search for family members who arrived there from 1820 to 1957. There are close to 65 million passenger records. For $50 you can even have a foundation members search the records for you.

But what if your ancestors did not come from northern Europe? What if your ancestors came to the USA as slaves? Is there an island, is there a foundation for you to research your background?

Well there is Sullivan Island in South Carolina.

In 1674 Captain Florence O’Sullivan was placed by the government of Carolina in charge of protecting the city of Charles Towne (Charlestown). He chose the island that now bears his name as the best place to place a gun that would protect the town.

It quickly became a commercial center for rice and indigo trade. As the colonies grew and trade in slaves became another highly commercial venture, Charlestown quickly became the largest slave port in the USA. Sullivan’s Island was the main entry point for Africans forced into slavery in the North American colonies. Until January 1, 1801 when the slave trade was abolished in the USA, approximately 400,000 Africans were imported to the USA to labor in the tobacco and cotton fields of the South. It is believed that at least 40% of that number came through Sullivan Island.

“Pest houses” were built on the island where the slaves would be quarantined for days before they were then transported to Charles Town for sale at public auction.

Sadly, unlike Ellis Island, there is little to mark the history of those who came to the USA through this island.

In 1989 writer Toni Morrison noted this lack of recognition by our nation.

“There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”

In 1990 a small plaque was finally placed on the island commenorating all those who came to the USA through Sullivan’s Island.

A place where…Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan’s Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God’s blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.

A place where…We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country. The Africans who entered through this port have moved on to meet the challenges created by injustices, racial and economic discrimination, and withheld opportunities. Africans and African-Americans, through the sweat of their brow, have distinguished themselves in the Arts, Education, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Law, Athletics, Research, Artisans and Trades, Business, Industry, Economics, Science, Technology and Community and Social Services.

A place where…This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who – past and present, have retained the unique values, strength and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.

Erected in 1990 by the S.C. Department of Archives and History. The Charleston Club of S.C. and the Avery Research Center.

Pursuant to a request from the South Carolina General Assembly as Evidenced in concurrent resolution S. 719, Adopted June 3, 1990.

Two different islands – two different stories. Although those who came through Ellis Island no doubt suffered many difficulties just making the trip and then going through the screening process on the island, they came willingly as their own choice and came seeking the hope of a better life.

Those who came through Sullivan Island did not come as their own choice but were stolen from their family and home and subjected to a journey over the ocean that we cannot even begin to imagine. They did not come seeking anything or hoping for a better life.

Ellis Island might have a sign that said “Welcome to America”

Sullivan Island’s sign might say “Welcome to Hell.”

A Black Poet?????

In Boston there is a Women’s Memorial that honors three women from our country’s early beginnings.

By Ingfbruno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27653635

One of the statutes anyone familiar with American history would recognize. She is Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, John Adams, and mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. One thing she is remembered for is advocating for women to be included in our country’s fight for freedom. Unfortunately, although our Constitution stated that “all men are created equal” it seems that did not include women. It would be years before women were given the same rights as men to take part in our country’s political life.

In her letter to her husband Abigail written on March 31, 1776 she asked him:

and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

A second woman honored there is Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone

An fervent abolitionist Lucy was one of the first women in Massachusetts to graduate college. Following in her parents’ footsteps she worked with the American Anti-Slavery Society. As she became an outspoken advocate both for freedom of the slaves and for women’s rights she was excommunicated from the Congregational Church.

After the Civil War when the Fifteenth Amendment was proposed giving black men the right to vote, many of the women’s rights proponents argued against it since it did not include women. Lucy supported it because it agreed with her abolitionist viewpoint and she believed it would eventually lead to women also gaining that right.

Lucy rightfully asked the question:

If, while I hear the shriek of the slave mother robbed of her little ones, I do not open my mouth for the dumb, am I not guilty?

The third woman is one that we rarely hear about. Phyllis Wheatley.

By Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1629684

She was the first African-American poet to be published. What is so amazing is this took place while she was still a slave, even before our nation had declared its independence from England. Abigail Adams was a fan of her writings as was George Washington.

As her writings became popular and people were told they were the work of a black woman, many could not believe it. A group of prominent Boston men examined her and concluded that she had indeed written the poems. They wrote a preface to her book to attest that it was indeed written by a black woman. Even so, publishers in Boston refused to publish the book so she went with her master’s son to London where it was published.

As I read about this talented woman, it made me wonder just how prejudiced and can I say “stupid” our founding fathers were that they could not believe a black woman (and by inference black people) could be capable of such intelligence. I am so amazed at the courage it took for her to go to London and have the book published.

Here is one of her poems:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I find it ironic that she refers to Cain as black. Clearly although her owners had recognized her abilities and had taught her to read and write, even learning Greek and Latin, they had also taught the false teaching in the Christian church at that time was that the curse God put on Cain was to make him black.

Sad how white slave owners tried to use the Bible to justify their slave society. Sad that even as educated as Phyllis was, she seemed to accept that terrible lie.

Even today, I wonder how many lies our society hangs on to as justification for not reaching out to those not like ourselves.

I Refuse to Be Color Blind

We often hear people say we should be color blind. When we look at someone we should not see white/black/brown but rather just a person. That sounds like a good idea. But it is one I cannot accept.

First of all, I think it is simply not possible. How can you not observe what color someone is when you look at them? I have grandchildren whose skin color runs from white as snow to warm chocolate brown to black as midnight. It would be hypocritical of me to say I do not notice the difference in their skin color.

I used to call these two my “salt and pepper” loves.

While I understand the idea of being “color-blind” is a good one when used as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his great “I have a dream” speech, I think it can be misleading.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Clearly we need to be people who judge a person by who they are, not what they look like.

However, to try to not see someone’s color can mean not really seeing who they are. When I meet a black person if I try to pretend I do not notice they are black, I am really refusing to give them the acknowledgement I should. And exactly what does that mean? Am I pretending they are white? Am I trying to treatment them like they are white? Well, they are not. Like it or not, we are all shaped to some extent by the culture we were raised in, by the way we see the world and the world sees us. The color of our skin plays a role in that.

To try to pretend that a black woman has had the same experiences of life that I have, that she will view the world exactly as I do is to deny who she is.

An example of what I mean. On my first job after high school I had a black co-worker who became a friend of mine. (This was in the 1960’s when there was a lot of unrest in our cities over the Civil Rights Movement.) At that point I really had not taken into account the difference in our skin color. I thought I was color-blind. One day we went out for lunch. I enjoyed the meal and was surprised when she refused to go out again to eat with me later in the week. I could not understand. Had I done something to offend? Did she not like the restaurant? We could go to another one.

She told me she was not comfortable with the stares we got from the other customers. At first I told her I did not know what she meant. But after thinking about it a little, I realized we did get very poor service and our waitress was very unfriendly. Still I did not have a clue why until she told me she felt they did not like our eating together and being so obviously friendly with one another.

Up to that point I had basically lived in a white world. She was my first black friend. To a white woman at that point I did not feel what she felt when people stared or when our waitress was rude. But now I realized I needed to not be color-blind. I needed to try to see the world through her eyes, to acknowledge that her skin color caused her to be treated differently, caused her to notice the stares more than I did, to feel the waitress’ rudeness more deeply than I did. Only when I quit trying to be color-blind, could we begin to navigate how our friendship would work going forward. She wanted to keep our friendship hidden but I wanted to go back to that same restaurant and dare someone to be unkind to her.

To this day I do not know if I did the right thing but I tried to push her to step out and not let others stop us from having a friendship that we did not have to hide. She finally continued to eat lunch with me, but when her car broke down and I wanted to give her a ride home, she stupidly refused. To be honest I was never sure if she did not want our co-workers (who were white) to get upset with me or if she did not want her family to know that she had a white friend. While we remained friends at work, we were never able to take our friendship to a deeper level. To this day I wonder – did I unknowingly treat her with prejudice? Did she unknowingly have prejudice toward me? I have always been sad that our friendship ended when I left for another job. That it did not survive outside our work place.

Now that I have grandchildren who are black, I again cannot ignore how the world treats them differently because of the color of their skin. My grandson, who is black as midnight and handsome as can be, and I have had discussions of what he faces as a black man. To try to pretend that he is the same and faces the same world as my white grandsons is both not true but also unfair to him.

Only when we acknowledge our differences can we then celebrate those differences. How dull this world would be if we were all one color, one background. I want to see that whiteness, that blackness you wear and then learn what your experiences have taught you and how you can share with me and we can celebrate who we are.

From Slave Songs to Gospel

In 1866 an university was established in Nashville Tennessee that was open to women and men regardless of color. Founded by the American Missionary Association, Fisk University was only one of more than 500 schools and colleges this anti-slavery group set up before, during and after the Civil War.

Five years after its founding, the university found itself in financial distress. Hoping to raise money to keep the school open Fisk treasurer and music professor, George White, took nine of his students on tour to perform in small towns around the country.

 Deciding what songs to sing, Professor White wrote, “One day , there came into my room a few students with some air of mystery. The door was shut and locked, the window curtains were drawn, and, as if a thing they were ashamed of, they sang some of the old-time religious slave songs now long since known as Jubilee songs.” This was one of those moments that changed everything. It was a moment that altered the course of musical history. Current musical director, Professor Paul Kwamit, said of that moment “the Fisk Jubilee Singers changed the Negro spiritual into an art form and introduced it to the world.”

There were some hostile audiences. Refused first-class seats on the train, George Pullman intervened and ended segregated seating on his trains. But over time their beautiful voices and immaculate performances brought praise and recognition. Mark Twain was a great fan of theirs and said “I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again.” Their efforts to help the university was a huge success. They raised enough money to build the school’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall after them, it is now a National Historic Landmark.

The group sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and later at the White House for President U.S. Grant.

In 1873 the original nine members were increased to 11 (all but two of this group were former slaves) and they took their singing to Europe. There they performed before Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Queen Victoria was so enchanted by their singing that she commissioned a massive group portrait by her own official portraitist. This beautiful floor-to-ceiling portrait hangs in the Jubilee Hall.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1925, on their way to Windsor Castle to sing for the king and queen. Photograph: Getty Images

Since then the group has continued to share their talents around the world. In 2000 they were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Music City Inc. included them, along with Reba McEntire, Roy Orbison and Ronnie Milsap, into the inaugural class of honorees of the Music City Walk of Fame. The U.S. Embassy sent them to Ghana in July 2007 to help that nation celebrate their 50th independence anniversary. President George W. Bush presented them with the 2008 National Medal of Arts.

We owe much to the black community for our own music. Much of jazz, rhymn and blues, gospel, and even rock and roll was largely influenced by the black community and the songs they created from their experiences.

“If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation of blues and
gospel music, two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Anchoring the sounds of African America, these styles underlay the musical innovations
of the century: jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, soul and hip hop. They are known and
cherished around the world and in every corner of the U.S. It would be impossible to imagine American music without them
.”….Charles E. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies and History, College of William and Mary.

Check out the stories of some of these great black musicians:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Muddy Waters
  • Sam Cooke
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Ma Rainey
  • Jelly Roll Morton
  • Nat King Cole

Denmark Vesey – Leader of Failed Rebellion

Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina.  What a beautiful place to visit.  Shady walks with old, old oak trees covered with Spanish moss.

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Beautiful pond with ducks and a fountain.

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But also a place of history.  I recently wrote about the first Memorial Day celebration in the park.

Former Slaves and the First Memorial Day Celebration

In exploring the park, we also found more history that was never in the history books in school.  We turned a corner in one of the walkways and there was a statue of a black man with a book under one arm and a bag of tools in his other hand.  Who was he and what was a statute of him doing in this beautiful park?

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Denmark Vesey, a self-educated slave who planned a massive rebellion.  In one hand is a Bible and a bag of carpenter tools is in the other.

Being history nuts, my husband and I could not walk away without knowing this man’s story.

Denmark Vesey was sold when just a young boy to a slaver captain, Joseph Vesey in 1781.  Assuming his master’s name, Denmark accompanied his master on several voyages before they settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

Denmark was able to purchase his freedom in 1800 and began working as a carpenter.  He taught himself to read and soon read about the Haitian slave revolt in the 1790’s.  He joined the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817 becoming a leader and preaching in his own home every week.  Whites in Charleston constantly monitored the meetings often disrupting services and arresting members.

Vesey preached from the Old Testament telling the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt and how Moses led them to freedom.

At almost every meeting, it was said, Vesey or one of his comrades ‘read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were deliveredy out of Egypt from bondage.’  That them was struck insistently; the deliverance from Egyp, the movement of God among his captive people.  (No wonder, then, that in some black tradition it was said that Vesey or his fellows were the inspiration for the ageless black song of faith and struggle, ‘Go Down, Moses.’)…..Vincent Harding, There is a River

Frustrated because he was not allowed to purchase freedom for his family, unhappy with being a second-class citizen and knowing first hand the oppressive conditions of the slaves, he organized a revolt.  The plan called for the slaves to attack guardhouses and arsenals, seize their arms, burn and destroy the city and free all the slaves.

Scholars do not agree on how many blacks were actually involved in the planned rebellion but estimates say it could have been as many as 9,000.

Warned by a house servant, the rebellion was thwarted before it could begin.

Some 130 blacks were arrested with 35 hanged after a trial that you have to wonder was probably very unfair.  Vesey was one of those 35.

Angry whites burned the African church and restricted even further the few rights the slaves in Charleston had.  One thing they tried to do was prevent the African ministers from preaching from the Old Testament.  Guess they thought it was a great danger for blacks to believe that their bondage was not in line with God’s Word and to pray for a deliverer to set them free.

Vesey became a martyr for African-Americans and a symbol for the abolitionist movement.  The increased loss of freedom and added oppression of the slaves helped to continue to pull the country toward Civil War.

Question:  Why had I never heard of this man and would never have known the story of this desperate attempt at freedom if I had not accidently wondered into this park?  Wonder how many other stories like this we have never been taught?