Holy City – Really?

When we spent several weeks in Charleston, South Carolina a few years ago trying to escape the cold winter weather, I was amazed at all the churches with their tall steeples. We took a tour of the city on a boat and from the harbor you could see the beautiful steeples reaching to the sky. The city is called by some the “Holy City” because of all the churches. I was told there were over 400 churches and a variety of religions.

I was particularly interested in the French Huguenot Church because doing genealogy research I discovered one line of my ancestors were Huguenots driven out of France by King Louis XIV in 1685. The church is beautiful.

Another church we enjoyed was the Circular Congregational Church. They claim to be one of the oldest continuously churches in the South. We roamed through their cemetery with monuments dating from 1695. The street the church is located on is called Meeting Street and the street is given that name because it was here their first meeting house was built in 1681. In 1804 they built a circular hall replacing earlier buildings. When the building burned in 1861 they used bricks from the old building and constructed the present sanctuary in 1892.

Beating the congregation at the Circular Congrregational Church, St. Michael’s Church lays claim to being the oldest church in Charleston. On this site a small wooden church was built in what was then Charles Town in 1680. Called St. Phillip’s, as the town grew – and the congregation grew, a new building was built and given the name St. Michael’s. They began conducting services in 1761 and, except for a small addition in 1883, the church is basically the same today.

We spent over half a day exploring the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God). The synagogue is a National Historic Landmark. It is the country’s second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use.

They shared a lot of their history – both of Charleston and of the Jewish religion. They allowed us to see the place where they housed the Torah. For my husband and I, both history nuts of American history and of Biblical times, it was a wonderful experience.

One of the churches we wanted to visit was closed. This building is a beautiful Gothic-Revival structure and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was founded in 1791 and included both free blacks and slaves. The ministers were often jailed for violations of laws that prohibited slaves and free black to meet without white supervision. After the unsuccessful slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, the community burned the church to the ground in 1822 because Vesey had been one of the church’s founders. Vesey and 34 others were executed.

After rebuilding the church, the congregation met there until 1834 when the state legislature outlawed all-black churches. Again, blacks could not meet in church unless there were white supervision. They simply met in secret until after the Civil War ended and then they formally reorganized.

I could go on and on about the churches we visited. But as we thought about their claim to be the “Holy City” we wondered how they could really consider their history to back up that claim.

Just a few blocks from some of these beautiful churches is the Old Slave Mart Museum. Established in 1948 it is the first museum on the history of slavery in the United States. The museum is located in a portion of the city’s last major slave market.

In 1808 when the United States banned international slave trading, the domestic slave trade became big business. Charleston became one of the major buying and selling markets. It is estimated that 40% or more of the slaves imported to American came through the Charleston port. You can check out more on that story on my post.

In Charleston slaves were sold in open markets until 1856 when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting public sales.  I guess the sight of blacks in irons and chains exhibited like animals for sale became too much for the people of the “Holy City.” In response a number of sale rooms or markets opened up in downtown Charlestown. One of the main ones was Ryan’s Auction Mart and the current museum is housed in part of that market.

The day we visited the museum the woman working there told us she was a descendant of one of the slaves sold there. Standing there in that dark place and trying to imagine the horrors of being sold like an animal and possibly being separated from parents or children, my mind wondered how people who built such beautiful churches to worship God on Sunday could deal in this terrible business on Monday through Saturday.

Being “holy” people they insisted that the slave markets be closed on Sunday so they could all go to church to worship God.

I left Charleston with mixed feelings. It is a beautiful city with the ocean and the old historical churches and houses. There are so many beautiful parks. There is so much history there. But I could not help but remember the history I saw there that I was never told about in history classes in school.

  • The slave market
  • Denmark Vesey statue
  • The original reason for building the Citadel
  • The first Memorial Day celebration where freed blacks honored the Union soldiers
  • The Gullah culture
  • Cabbage Row
  • Philip Simons Foundation

“Holy City.” Yes there are a lot of church steeples reaching to the sky. But after seeing all that I saw, I would never call it that.

First Open-Heart Surgery – Guess Who Did It?

I remember all the news articles and the publicity given in 1982 when the first artificial heart was implanted in a patient in South Africa. The doctors behind this were portrayed as great men of science – as they should have been.

However until I began doing research on black history I never knew that the world’s first successful heart surgery was performed by a black doctor in 1893.

Born in 1848 in Pennsylvania, Daniel Hale Williams started his working career as a shoemaker. Seeking more education, Williams finished secondary school in Wisconsin and became an apprentice to a former surgeon general for Wisconsin. He studied medicine at Chicago Medical College.

After completing his internship he began private practice in an integrated community on Chicago’s south side. Further accomplishements included teaching anatomy at Chicago Medical College and serving as surgeon to the City Railway Company. The governor of Illinois appointed him to the state’s board of health in 1889.

Even though Dr. Williams had achieved success and some acceptance in the white community, black citizens were still barred from being admitted to most hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. To combat this, Dr. Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in May 1891. It was the first hospital in the nation that had a racially integrated staff.

In 1893 James Cornish was stabbed in the chest. Rushed to Provident Hospital, Cornish quickly began to go into shock. Suspecting a deeper wound near the heart Dr. Williams opened the wound between two ribs, cut the rib cartilage and created a small trapdoor to the heart. Asking six doctors to observe what he did (four white, two black) Dr. Williams found a gash in the right coronary artery. Holding the edges of the wound with forceps, he sewed them together. Cornish not only survived the surgery, he lived for over 20 more years.

The next year he became chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C There he made improvements reducing the hospital’s mortality rate. The American Medical Association barred black doctors so Dr. Williams help organized the National Medical Association for black professionals.

In 1894, Dr. Williams became chief surgeon of Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious medical post available to African Americans then. There, he made improvements that reduced the hospital’s mortality rate. In 1895, he helped to organize the National Medical Association for black professionals, who were barred from the American Medical Association. Williams returned to Chicago, and continued as a surgeon. In 1913, he became the first African American to be inducted into the American College of Surgeons.

Known in his practice as “Dr. Dan,” today the Howard University Hospital use his name “Dr. Dan” as the call given for their “code blue.”

(Thanks to Columbia Surgery, New York, New York for the information on Dr. Williams and the photo of him.)

A Hero of Our Fight for Independence We Were Never Told About.

In school we learned about the blockade at Yorktown which led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis – which led to a quick end to the war for independence. We were told of the leadership of George Washington. We were told of the French hero who led French soldiers to aid us in the fight.

We were not told of the spy working with Lafayette whose information helped led Washington and Lafayette to the successful blockade of Yorktown.

Born a slave on a plantation in Virginia, James Amistead was granted permission by his master, William Armistead, to enlist in the French units fighting with the colonists for freedom from England.

The army employed James as a spy. He infiltrated General Cornwallis’ headquarters by pretending to be a runaway slave. The British welcomed him because as a native Virginian, he would know the terrain well. Armistead served as a double agent, supplying Lafayette with information on the British movements while giving the British misleading information. In this position, Armistead risked his life. He had no papers to carry showing he was a soldier and if discovered, could be hung for treason.

In 1781 the information Armistead was able to give Lafayette and Washington helped them in their plans for a blockade in Yorktown. This blockade led to the surrender of Lord Cornwallis – which quickly brought the war for dependence to an end.

So – with his help you would expect Armistead would have won his right to be free. However, because he served as a spy and not a regular soldier he was forced to return back to his master as a slave.

For over four years he continued to be a slave – having risked his life for the freedom of the colonists, but denied his own freedom. For over four years he petitioned Congress for his freedom. When Lafayette learned his comrade in arms was still a slave, he wrote to Congress and finally he won his freedom.

Armistead was able to buy a farm in Viriginia, marry and live the rest of his life as a freeman. In gratefulness Armistead added Lafayette to his name.

Another hero we were never told about in American history classes.

From Jefferson Davis to Hiram Revels

If you have ever studied American history you have probably heard of Jefferson Davis. He was the president of the Confederate States after they seceded from the United States in 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Many would have you believe the southern states left the union over the issue of state rights.

However, if you read the statements of Jefferson Davis, it is clear that slavery was the true cause of the conflict.

  • “If slavery be a sin, it is not yours. It does not rest on your action for its origin, on your consent for its existence. It is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree.”
  • “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.”
  • My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him – our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.
  • It was one of the compromises of the Constitution that the slave property in the Southern States should be recognized as property throughout the United States.

The whole question was: Can a person be someone’s property? Davis argued that the Constitution recognized the right of protection of someone’s property. To him, the black man/woman were only property and therefore the Constitution’s promise that “every man is created equal” did not apply to them.

Of course, when the Civil War began, Jefferson Davis resigned his position in the United States Congress. Interesting that when the war was over and Mississippi was back in the Union, a black man was seated in Congress.

At that point representatives were not elected by the public, but rather by the state legislature. When the Republican dominated state legislature nominated Hiram Revels to fill one of the two seats, the minority Democrats agreed to the deal hoping this would “seriously damage the Republican party.”

Revels was never a slave. Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1827 his father was a free man and his mother was of Scottish ancestry. Although educating black children was illegal in North Carolina, Revels was able to receive an elementary education from a free black woman and later moved north to complete his education. After attending Beech Grove Quaker Seminary in Indiana and the Darke County Seminary in Ohio, he was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was able to attend Knox College in Galesburg Illinois on a scholarship and graduated with a degree in divinity and theology.. Revels preached throughout several states inclulding Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. While preaching in Missouri he was imprisoned for a brief time in 1854 “for preaching to negroes.”

During the Civil War he helped recruit two black regiments and served as a chaplain for a black regiment at both Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi.

When Congress met to certify Revel’s place in Congress, some tried to deny him that position because of the 1857 Dred Scott decision which said no African American could be a citizen. When the 14th Amendment was ratified by the states making anyone born in the USA a citizen, they then tried to deny him by saying he did not meet the nine-year citizenship requirement. However, the 15th Amendment, which passed just days before Revel was sworn in, stated that no one could be denied to vote or hold office on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The abolitionist Wendell Phillips called him “The Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.”

Revels served on the Committee of Education and Labor and the District of Columbia Committee. He pushed for integrating the schools iin the District of Columbia and fought against the banning of African-American mechanics from working at the Washington Navy Yard.

Upon leaving Congress, he served as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University). He also served briefly as Mississippi Secretary of State. Teaching theology at Shaw College, he also served on the Board of Trustees. He returned to his roots as pastor and died at a church meeting in Mississippi in 1901 at the age of 73.

Why Black History Month

Because:

I heard of Paul Revere, John Hancock and Sam Adams, I never heard of Crispus Attucks, Salem Poor or Peter Salem.

I heard of Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. I never heard of Phyllis Wheatley.

I heard of Alan Shepard and John Glenn. I never heard of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson or Dorothy Vaughan.

I heard of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Salk. I never heard of Dr. Daniel Williams.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get my point.

I encourage you this month to do some searches on Google or at the library. Learn about some of these people – or others.

And read one or two of these books to better understand others different than you.

  • Red Summer, the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
  • Forever Free, the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner
  • Wilmington’s Lie, the Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino
  • Life of a Klansman, A Family History of White Supremacy by Edward Ball
  • Never Caught, a story of George Washington’s pursuit of a slave while he was president, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Or, watch one or two of these movies:

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • 42
  • Glory
  • A Raisin in the Sun
  • Selma
  • Hidden Figures

I’m Not a Racist – or Am I?

There is so much talk today about being racist. Many are quick to call others by that name while as many as quick to insist they are not racist and that they are tired of people using the “race card.”

While I have never been called a racist (at least as far as I know) and I would say I was not a racist, I still took a look at what the dictionary said a racist is.

According to Webster’s dictionary a racist is someone who holds “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

A more complete definition lists: “Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These views can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems in which different races are ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.”

Using that definition I think I can honestly say I am not a racist. I have never believed that one group of people is inherently superior to another.

But using that definition I must say that I was raised by a generation who were clearly racist. Let me say that my parents and my aunts and uncles were good people that I loved and respected. I don’t believe they realized how racist they were. But looking back at that generation I see it is so clear that prejudices have been passed down from generation to generation. Only within the last few years have many been able to recognize this and to work to break that terrible cycle of beliefs.

As a young adult I had many arguments with my father who insisted that black people’s brains were not as big as white people’s brains. He also had other beliefs about physical differences that I will not even mention here.

For years I thought my father was just a country boy who came up with some crazy ideas. It is only as I have begun to research and read the history of black/white relations in our country that I have discovered this was not some crazy ideas of one man. This was what he had been taught along with many of his generation.

And that terrible lie has been a part of our history going back even before our country was established.

As our country was founded and began growing, there were many physicians and scientists who advocated that there was a difference between the “pure” race (white) and Africans and Native Americans.

One was Dr. Charles Caldwell. Dr. Caldwell visited the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris where he studied a collection of skulls taken from people from all the world. After his study, he determined that the skulls of African people show that they had a “tamableness” that not only made them perfect for slaves, but actually required them to have a “master.” This belief which was shared throughout our nation served to contribute to the belief that slavery was an acceptable part of nature. It contributed to the idea that whites were superior.

Another was Samuel George Morton. Morton’s collection of skulls is today part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and is one of the most famous collections of human skulls in the entire world.

Morton published a book in 1839. In “Crania Americana” he described five “separate species.

(Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.)

They were (in descending order) Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Native America and Negro. He wrote that these differences were dictated by God. He concluded that Native American minds were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge.” His book was very popular in America and many believe this was used to justify removing Native Americans from their homeland and taking the land for white settlers.

His book became popular in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and India. Charles Darwin called him an “authority” on the subject of race. Others applauded his work and many in European countries began to also publish such ideas.

You might think the abolitionist would not have bought into this thinking. But many of the renowned abolitionists also believed this. The apparent “tambleness” of the blacks served two purposes. One, it could reassure that if the slaves were set free, they would not take revenge on their masters. Two, if they were naturally weaker and inferior to whites, society had an obligation to help them, not enslave them.

While I am sure today almost anyone would say these studies were ridiculous, I believe that this thinking has been passed down generation after generation.

My parents did not dislike blacks. I saw them often be kind and friendly with blacks we came into contact with at church services. However, without really stopping to think, they had been indoctrinated with that thought that somehow we as whites were superior to blacks. It was an almost unconscious thing – as natural as breathing in and out.

I am not a racist and in tracing my ancestry as far back as I have been able, I find no record of anyone owning slaves. But if I remain silent when I hear or see others making comments that are racist because I am afraid of losing friends, then what does that make me?

Examples of things I have heard from others:

One pastor friend said “We did blacks a favor by taking them from the jungles of Africa.”

One family member moved from one mobile home park to another because a black family moved in across from them and asked me “Would you like living next to a black family?” My response was that I did have black neighbors and they were some of the best in our community.

One family member, when hearing that my husband had found that one of his ancestors was a slave from Ghana said, “Well, that explains a lot of things.” Was she just trying to be funny? Maybe – but still – that is not funny.

Finally, while I do not agree with most of the items on the BLM agenda and I am not in favor of rioting and destroying, I have found it interesting to see the anger of many of my white friends over the restrictions or loss of rights they have experienced with this Covid crisis.

For over a year now we have been told we cannot gather in large groups, many of our sports, our schools, even our churches have been shut down. We have been denied entry to most retail stores unless we wear a mask. And the anger is real. And the anger is right.

But – I have to ask:

If we get so angry for some loss of freedom for almost two years, how can we not see that the history of not only loss of freedom, but loss of life, not for two years but for hundred of years might lead to anger.

And, if you really want to know the history that our black friends know (passed down from grandparents) I recommend the following books:

  • Red Summer, the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
  • Forever Free, the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner
  • Wilmington’s Lie, the Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino
  • Life of a Klansman, A Family History of White Supremacy by Edward Ball

We can say we are not racists and we never owned slaves or we can begin to read and research our nation’s history and try to understand where our black friends and neighbors are coming from.

Former Slaves and the First Memorial Day Celebration

Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place to walk or just sit and enjoy the many flowers, trees and the fountain.  When we spent a few months in Charleston during the winter of 2016 we walked almost every day in the park.  At 60 acres, there are plenty of walkways.  Just six months out from a knee replacement surgery, I found it a great way to get some exercise to build up my physical strength, but also a wonderful place to just sit and reflect on God’s creation.

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But the park is also full of history.

Originally part of a plantation owned by John Gibbes, the portion that is now Hampton Park was purchased by the South Carolina Jockey Club and a race course was built.  Named the Washington Race Course, the one-mile loop is now a roadway that runs around the park.  Featuring some of the best horse racing in the South, it became the social event of the year during Race Week held every February.

During the Civil War it became a camp for Union prisoners of war.  At least 257 Union soldiers died at this location. Facing disease and the advance of the Union Army, Confederate guards hastily buried the dead in an unmarked mass grave.  Most white residents abandoned the city and it was ironic that the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street was the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry.

Days later, free black residents and former slaves walked to the mass grave and reburied the Union soldiers in proper graves. Erecting a marker and a small fence around the burial ground they built a memorial arch which read:  “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, many former slaves, along with white missionaries and teachers and Union soldiers staged a parade to the race course.  They laid flowers on the graves, listened to speakers of both races, and picnicked on the grass.

This celebration has been called by many America’s first Memorial Day. After the war, as the cemetery suffered neglect, the soldiers’ bodies were again exhumed and buried in 1871 in South Carolina’s national cemeteries at Beaufort and Florence.

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Interesting that this celebration conducted by former slaves honoring the Union soldiers who died for their freedom has been buried in history and credit for this day of remembrance goes to others.

I would never have known of this Memorial Day celebration had we not walked in that park so full of history

And there’s more history there – but that calls for another blog.