All year, Ren Jones and Thomas Coughlin worked twenty hours a week at the Avery Research Center learning the art of special documents preservation and reckoning with South Carolina history firsthand. Here are their takes on what they did and learned.
When I applied for the Graduate Assistantship position at The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, I had a radically different definition of what it meant to preserve history. For some context, I blame the Agrirama. If you haven’t heard of the Agrirama, it is a 19th century “living history” museum located in Tifton, Georgia. Boiled down, the Agrirama is a backwoods version of Colonial Williamsburg, only the reenactors are wearing dirty overalls and planting peanuts instead of marching around with fifes and drums. At the Agrirama, you don’t even have to squint through the trees to see the Shoney’s on the other side of I-75. Here is my point in all this: Once you have heard the voice of Mrs. Modjeska Simkins, called the “matriarch of Civil Rights activists” in S.C., describe her parents’ tireless struggle to provide her with the best possible education in the segregated South, apathetic Abraham Baldwin College students plowing dirt in poorly replicated costumes can no longer be considered “living history.”
Often times, working at Avery feels a lot like convening with spirits. While I have aided in processing numerous collections—scanned a slew photographic negatives of gospel groups clad in seventies velvet suits, pulled funeral programs from well over a thousand mortuary files, proofed countless digital finding aid entries—I have been most moved by the Oral History Collection. Previously unprocessed, the Oral History Collection is shelved somewhere deep in the caverns of the special collections library. (That was a bit melodramatic. It’s fairly well lit room, and the climate control humidifiers are a must.) Recorded on reel-to-reels, cassettes, and compact discs, sorting through the available recordings is a bit like opening a Russian nesting doll—large blue box, smaller gray shoe box, plastic tape case. Each recording is then labeled with a non-descript MSS# (e.g. 500.027.002). The MSS#s are a welcome mystery. Because each tape is catalogued by the MSS# rather than the subject, the content of each tape comes as a surprise. It could be anything from an interview concerning the cultural relevance of sweetgrass baskets in the Gullah Geechee community to a New Year’s Eve ‘Watch Night Service’ from 1968 to an oral history interview given by a former Avery Normal School student.
One of those interviews given by former Avery Normal School student Edna Richardson brought me to McLeod Plantation. According to the organization’s mission statement,
McLeod Plantation was built on the riches of sea island cotton – and on the backs of enslaved people whose work and culture are embedded in the Lowcountry’s very foundation. It is a living tribute to the men and women and their descendants that persevered in their efforts to achieve freedom, equality, and justice. (McLeod)
I had been transcribing this particularly lengthy interview for weeks. (For a frame of reference, it takes approximately one hour to transcribe fifteen minutes of audio, and that’s if the quality is clear.) Though she was born in the early 20th century, Richardson had spent her entire childhood living on the grounds of McLeod plantation in cabins previously inhabited by enslaved families. A native of James Island, Richardson watched as the ancestral land she called home was developed around her. She talks in great detail about a life before commercial businesses—when she visited a family run grocery store instead of the Piggly Wiggly constructed on the sight where her mother’s house once stood. In the background, John Richardson, Edna’s husband, could be heard throughout the tape answering phone calls and excitedly making plans for an upcoming family reunion. After spending hours with the Richardsons’ voices, it felt like I knew them—only I didn’t and I never would.
Unfortunately, the Richardsons had passed away by the time the twenty-four-year-old interview made its way to my desk. I read their obituaries—beautiful obituaries filled with nicknames and accomplishments and grandchildren. I wanted to pay my respects, but I didn’t know how. Somehow, I felt like visiting McLeod was my way of letting Mrs. Richardson know I had heard her story, and I was thankful to her for having preserved it so someone like me could gain a sliver of perspective. Though her birth home had been demolished to make way for Charleston’s growing suburban sprawl, I visited those cabins on the McLeod grounds, those cabins that were inhabited by the ancestors of formerly enslaved people until the 1990s for the price of twenty-seven dollars a month. I saw the white columned house looming heavy over the smaller cabins. Centuries may have passed, but that house continues to cast a shadow that can not and should not be ignored.
McLeod is already in possession of some of Mrs. Richardson’s interviews. Historical interpreters use them to accurately detail the lives of James Island natives who grew up tethered to the plantation—the sons and daughters of African-American farmers who called the land home. While the historical interpreters had already met Mrs. Richardson in person or via interviews, I had a new tape packed with previously unheard details, details that will someday be used to better inform the thousands of guests who visit the historical site each year. As long as the Avery Research Center continues to preserve these stories and as long as contributors like Mrs. Richardson continue to tell them, “living history” will never die. It will continue to evolve until the whole story, not just pieces of it, are told.
“McLeod Plantation Historic Site.” Parks & Facilities, Charleston County Parks, 2019, www.ccprc.com/1447/McLeod-Plantation-Historic-Site.