Heroes, ghosts and history


We didn’t actually wear these buttons.

“Remind me again why we’re going there?”

That was Eric’s question when I suggested we wear these buttons on our flight to Charleston, South Carolina.

It was a reasonable question. South Carolina is the state whose governor declared (in her State of the State address, no less) that unions “are not needed, not wanted and not welcome.” It’s the state whose U.S. Senators have described the National Labor Relations Board as, variously, an “out-of-control bureaucracy,” “third world tyranny” and “rogue agency” for its outrageous! ridiculous! shocking! interference with the God-given right of corporations to tear federal labor law into teeny tiny pieces, suitable for CEOs to scatter like confetti at bonus time.

If your reaction to all this is “huh?”, a bit of background. South Carolina’s business and political leaders reacted with predictable rage when the NLRB issued a complaint against the Boeing Corporation for shifting production of its 787 “Dreamliner” plane from Washington state to a new plant in North Charleston. The 2011 complaint alleged that Boeing’s move was illegal retaliation for (legal, federally-protected) strikes by the company’s unionized workforce in the Seattle area. In support of this absurd allegation (unprecedented! an attack on jobs and freedom and all we hold dear!), the rogue agency cited numerous public statements by Boeing executives that they were moving production to Charleston . . .  in retaliation for strikes by their unionized workforce in the Seattle area.


Thanks to Google maps, I already knew the drive from the airport to downtown Charleston would take us past “Dreamliner Drive.” And there it was. There, also, was the sprawling Boeing facility, still in operation despite the hysteria (job killers! business destroyers!) generated by the NLRB’s enforcement action. (As often happens, the company and the union reached a settlement, and the unfair labor practice charge was withdrawn.)

All in all, I had to agree with Eric that South Carolina was not the most likely destination for a trade unionist and an NLRB attorney.

So, why were we there? Well, why not? We had wanted to squeeze in a vacation after my months of obsessive marathon training (and what turned out to be a disappointing race) but before the upcoming frenzy of holiday travel. Flights to Charleston were cheap (though hotels were expensive), and November temperatures promised to be mild (as it turned out, they were within a few degrees of the temperatures in NYC all week). There would be salt marshes full of birds (like the loud but elusive clapper rail and the even louder, clownish, common gallinule) – a draw for me, if not for Eric. There would be flat coastal roads for cycling (our cycling gear stayed in our suitcases) and running (my first morning run was cut short by an alligator on the path, forcing me to proceed with caution after that). There would be good food.

The food did not disappoint. We parsed the different varieties of field peas, sampled pickled shrimp and smoky pulled lamb and she-crab soup, chowed down on macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, fried oysters, fried green tomatoes and fried okra, and discovered the thick gravy South Carolinians call hash – the best of which is made dark and viscous with ground pork liver.

There was history, too. And the history of how history is remembered and written and contested, with tellings that clash or, more often, talk past one another. Now that I’m back home in Brooklyn – having updated my life list of birds, culled my photos and raved about Low Country food to anyone who’ll listen – it’s the region’s fraught, undead, haunted history that remains with me.

Local heroes

You don’t have to stroll far in Charleston to find monuments to the Low Country’s slave-owning aristocracy or to their political creation, the Confederacy.  Pretty much any house big and beautiful enough to make you stop and look bears a historical marker commemorating one or more members of the white planter class. To enter the City Market, you go under the Confederate Museum, proudly operated by the Daughters of the Confederacy. At the tip of Charleston’s peninsula, in White Point Gardens, a large statue honors “The Confederate Defenders of Charleston” (depicting them, with striking realism, as naked and Greek).

The day we arrived, a Sunday, lower King Street had been transformed into a festive pedestrian mall, but it was still an appalling place – chock-a-block with chain stores and monochromatic crowds (blond, khakied, many in college regalia). My inclination was to get the hell out of there, so I was a little annoyed when Eric came to a dead stop in front of the former S. H. Kress store (now an H&M, but still bearing its original sign). “Kress was a big target for the civil rights movement,” he told me. “They had lunch counters, like Woolworth’s. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were sit-ins here.”

“Heh,” I responded. “Don’t imagine we’ll find a plaque about that.”

I was wrong, of course. Eric had already spotted a historical marker, sponsored by the Preservation Society of Charleston and installed just last year. I joined him to read about the city’s first sit-ins on April 1, 1960. Students from nearby Burke High School** sat down at lunch counters at Kress, Woolworth’s and W. T. Grant’s, requested service, and refused to leave when service was denied. They were arrested and fined. It was the beginning of the civil rights movement in Charleston.

High school kids. In one contemporary photograph, they’re much better dressed than Katie and her friends at that age (coats and ties for the boys, dresses and prim little hats for the girls), but they still look impossibly young. Their hands are clasped on top of the counter. One boy cocks his head to the side and grins; another looks down; one of the girls presses her lips together – perhaps to stifle a laugh, perhaps to stop herself from shaking – and stares straight ahead. Despite their precocious heroism (high school kids!), not one is striking a heroic pose.

Later, heading back uptown after circling the battery (my grumbling about the kitsch-heroic Confederate Defenders monument momentarily halted by several large flocks of white ibis swooping over the peninsula en route to their nightly roosting grounds), I happened upon another marker. This one was co-sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation and the African American Historical Alliance and told the story of Robert Smalls and the Confederate transport ship, the Planter.

Memorial bust of Robert Smalls - Beaufort, SC

Memorial bust of Robert Smalls – Beaufort, SC

Robert Smalls became a bit of an obsession on this trip. I can’t exactly call him an unknown hero – there was that marker along the Charleston waterfront, a modest memorial by his grave in his hometown of Beaufort, and he has a road, a school, even a U.S. army vessel named after him – but he was certainly unknown to me (and, I suspect, to most Americans, both white and black).

His story is so amazing, so cinematic, so . . . badass . . . that I found myself wanting to talk about him all. the. time. (Eric can attest to that.)

In brief: Smalls was an enslaved African-American from Beaufort sent to work in Charleston. By his early 20s, he was, in effect, a ship’s pilot (though not called that, because how could he be?). Tasked with steering the Planter through Charleston Harbor, he hatched a plan to commandeer the ship. (According to a celebratory article in Harper’s Weekly from June 1862, the plan began with another crew member’s jest – something along the lines of “Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if we just took this ship and sailed the hell out of here?” – but Smalls soon made it serious.) On a night when the white captain and officers had left the ship to dally on shore, Smalls and the rest of the enslaved crew smuggled their families on board, sailed out of the harbor (passing multiple Confederate checkpoints) and delivered the Planter, its guns, ammunition, code books and maps to Union forces.

He was 23 years old at the time.

Smalls went on to serve in the U.S. navy and became the first African-American to captain a U.S. fighting ship when he took over command of the Planter (now in the service of the Union) from its white captain, who panicked under Confederate fire and was preparing to surrender. (What choice did he have, really? He knew full well that if the Planter were returned to Confederate hands, he and the other Black crew members would be summarily executed.)

After the war, Smalls helped draft South Carolina’s 1868 constitution; served in the state legislature; and was elected to five terms in the U.S. Congress, the last in 1886. By then, through a combination of terror and chicanery, the white minority was reestablishing its power. (Another thing I didn’t know: the state of South Carolina was majority Black for more than a century, from the 1810s to the 1920s. If you don’t believe me, you can find historical U.S. Census data here.) As the reaction took hold, African-American voting rolls shrank – from 81,000 statewide in 1868 to 10,000 in 1894. In 1895, white dominance was consolidated at a new constitutional convention that tore up the 1868 constitution and replaced it with one that officially disenfranchised African-Americans. Smalls was one of just six African-American representatives to that convention, out of 160 delegates. As his wife lay dying back home in Beaufort, he argued in Columbia for the democratic rights of all South Carolinians. But this convention was about power, not eloquence, and the new constitution’s passage was a foregone conclusion.  Small’s final gesture of protest was to refuse to sign the document.

Why do we not all know about this man?***

 Two Middletons

We stayed outside Charleston, at an incongruously modern inn on the grounds of Middleton Place, a former rice plantation. The white Middleton dynasty came to South Carolina from England via the West Indies, driven by a restless, pioneering urge to amass money and property – and lots of it. They succeeded. By the time of the Civil War, Middleton Place was just one of 20 Middleton plantations. It was, however, the family showplace. A main house, flanked by two auxiliary houses, surveyed the Ashley River from atop a long, gently sloping greensward. Formal gardens modeled after those at Versailles surrounded the residences.

I wouldn’t normally seek out a plantation tour – too enraging, too compromising (are my admission fees supporting the romanticization of the Old South?), just not my thing. But our stay at the Inn (a beautiful place, by the way, its brutalist exterior and spare, Nordic interiors a welcome change from Historic Charleston fussiness) included free access to the plantation itself, so why not?

Two separate tours told very different stories. Tour the Middleton house (a reconstruction of one of the smaller, flanking structures), and you’d learn about the gracious lives of the white Middletons, their advantageous marriages, their political power and their tragic fall, culminating in the destruction of Middleton Place, first by Union troops and later by the great earthquake of 1886. Go on the fields tour, and you’d learn how enslaved Africans created the Middleton fortune – not just through their forced labor, but also through their technical knowledge of rice culture. And, of course, it was enslaved Africans who enabled the gracious Middleton lifestyle. They built the grand Middleton houses, planted the Middleton trees and camellias and azaleas, polished the Middleton silver, cooked the fine Middleton meals and wiped the asses of generations of Middleton children.

Our guides, both middle-aged white women, mirrored the disconnect between the two tours. Whether through self-selection (probable) or a gradual transformation over hundreds of tours (a more fanciful thought), each reflected her particular topic – so much so that it was hard to imagine them ever sitting down together to talk about the history of the place. What on earth would the one with sensible shoes, a wide-brimmed hat and tendency to refer to the Middletons as the “one percent of their day” say to the other, with her sleek blond hair, tasteful jewelry and references to “the war between the states”?

The two disconnected tours left me thinking about two Middletons who may or may not have crossed paths during their lives.

Williams Middleton (1809-1883) inherited Middleton Place and the rest of the Middleton empire from his father, Henry – former South Carolina governor, congressman and minister to Russia – in 1846. Williams signed South Carolina’s 1860 Ordinance of Secession and used the Middleton wealth to finance the Confederacy, then spent the years after the war in bitter and resentful mourning for his lost fortune. I imagine him neglecting his post-war phosphate mining and timber businesses to drink more than was good for him and fire off letters of complaint.**** He became, in other words, a bit of a crank. In my historico-imaginary rendition, his friends eventually stop calling, and who can blame them? Williams wore them out with nonstop laments for his big house, his pretty azaleas, his paintings, his water buffalo.

Water buffalo have been reintroduced to Middleton Place

Water buffalo have been reintroduced to Middleton Place

Those water buffalo seem to have been a particular obsession. By 1865, the Middleton herd numbered eleven. When Sherman’s troops came through, five of the animals were butchered and roasted – a grand feast – and the rest left with the departing troops. Three eventually turned up in the new Central Park Zoo, where they were popularly known as “General Sherman’s water buffalo.”  In one of his many petulant letters, this one to a cousin, WIlliams whined that “I believe I informed you of the fact that the water cattle or ‘buffaloes de Valachie’ now in Central Park in New York are my property, having been driven off . .  . when that portion of our country was invaded.”

Less is known about Ruth Middleton. Her contribution to the Middleton Place archive is a stained sack made from coarse white fabric – a flour sack, perhaps. It turned up in a flea market a few years ago and was donated to the foundation that maintains the plantation house and grounds. In meticulous cross-stitch, Ruth (dates of birth and death unknown) embroidered the sack with the story of her grandmother and great-grandmother:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton


The silver and paintings and furniture that four generations of white Middletons brought back from Europe; the bejeweled tiara Mary Helen Hering Middleton wore in Czar Nicholas I’s court; the watercolors painted by a talented Middleton son; Governor Henry Middleton’s portrait, showing him stout and self-satisfied in a waistcoat heavy with gold embroidery; the waistcoat itself, stored in a special, protective case (our peppy blond guide allowed us a quick peek, but warned us it was far too fragile and valuable to put on display) – Sherman’s troops should have burned them all, reduced them to ashes and charred fragments, busted the planter aristocracy forever.

Let a pile of rubble and Ruth Middleton’s grandmother’s sack speak to the history of Middleton Place.


The main house at Middleton Place – as it should be.


Ghost tours are big business in Charleston, allegedly one of the most haunted cities in the United States. Take a Ghost and Dungeon guided walking tour with Bulldog Tours! Go on a nighttime Ghostwalk! Learn about Ghosts of the South!

Charleston boasts a haunted jail, a haunted theater, haunted inns, haunted restaurants, and haunted plantations (according to some of the people who work there, Middleton Place is one of them). More quotidian ghosts hide in plain sight in the names of subdivisions and apartment complexes along Ashley River Road: Planter’s Trace. Plantation Oaks. Shadowmoss Plantation. There they are, between the used car dealerships and churches and storefronts advertising concealed weapons classes.

The main house at Middleton Place may lie in ruins, but the plantation system and the reconsolidation of white supremacy after Reconstruction casts a long shadow. Unequal access to just about everything (education, jobs, decent pay, justice) haunts Ruth Middleton’s descendants. More than 40 percent of African-American children in South Carolina are growing up in poverty. Intergenerational economic mobility throughout the U.S. is depressingly low – another way of saying that the poor stay poor – and it’s especially low in the states of the old Confederacy.***** Segregation stacks the economic odds against poor white kids as well as poor Black ones.

In the meantime, the descendants of Williams Middleton have become even wealthier and more powerful. (I’m using “descendants” metaphorically here, but given the ossified class structure of the U.S., chances are good it’s true literally as well.)  In 2010, the wealthiest one percent of the U.S. population – average net worth $16.4 million – held more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.******

Naturally, they want to keep it that way. There’ll be no confiscating their water buffalo (or raising the tax rate on their dividends and capital gains).  And, of course, no multi-racial organization of workers to contest control of the workplace, demand a larger share of the profits, or offer an alternative political and economic vision.

When South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley declares war on unions, it’s as though the petulant ghost of Williams Middleton is driving state economic policy. Unlike the harmless, tourist-friendly spirits that blow out lights and float down stairwells in old Charleston, some ghosts do real damage. Isn’t it about time they were exorcised once and for all?

*Props to Boeing for its arrogance refreshing candor, though. With so many entirely legal ways for employers to bust unions, can you blame the aerospace giant for forgetting that some ways (still) aren’t?

**Burke High School is a few blocks and a world away from King Street. Originally created as a segregated vocational school, its student body today is still 99% African-American. More than 80% of Burke students come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. For more on the school, including the role its students and alumni played in the civil rights movement, click here.

***I did find this short video clip on Smalls from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series on African-American history, Many Rivers to Cross. Hollywood it’s not, but it’s still worth watching. Gates has an excellent, succinct narrative here. My telling of Small’s story also draws on material compiled by the Robert Smalls Collection at the South Carolina State Museum, available here. And though I haven’t done so yet, I plan to head to the Brooklyn Public Library and lug home Eric Foner’s doorstopper of a book on Reconstruction to learn more about Smalls’ political career and the horrifying reassertion of white supremacy in South Carolina and throughout the south.

****The letters of complaint part of this imagining, at least, is supported by the historical record.

*****State-level statistics on child poverty are available here. A journalistic summary of recent academic work on the geography of intergenerational mobility is available here, with a detailed discussion (and data!) here.

******One more citation, and then I’ll shut up: a good source for historical wealth data is Edward Wolff, NBER Working Paper #18559, “The Asset Price Meltdown and the Wealth of the Middle Class” (November 2012).


2 thoughts on “Heroes, ghosts and history

  1. What an amazing post, especially the description of the history! I’m secretly glad that I don’t have a blog, though, because I’m sure it wouldn’t compare to this.


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