In 2006, an extraordinary documentary aired on South Carolina ETV. Titled “Shared History,” the one-hour film explores the interconnected lives of the descendants of the white and black families that once called and, in some cases, still call Woodlands Plantation their home.
When 19th-century novelist William Gilmore Simms married for the second time, he acquired not only a wife but also property, an extensive agricultural holding of approximately 4,000 acres located about 4 miles outside of Bamberg. With the land came an enslaved population numbering more than 70 individuals. Although Simms, who thought of himself as a benevolent master, may not have fully appreciated the significance of this relationship at the time, it is a fact that his life and that of his descendants would forever be bound to that place and to the lives of the African-Americans who made their privileged lifestyle possible, both before and after emancipation.
A highlight of the film is footage of a “reunion” of all of the families, both white and black, hosted at the plantation in 2001. At that landmark event, the progeny of both master and slave met to confront their shared past and perhaps pave a path toward a more equitable collective future.
A similar goal informs the Redcliffe Roots Weekend held last Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the state historic site in Beech Island. For three days, families connected to Redcliffe, Silver Bluff, Kathwood and Cowden Plantations – all owned by 19th-century South Carolina Governor and U.S. Sen. James Henry Hammond – gathered to meet and mingle and share their stories.
I was pleased to be invited to the Saturday evening program attended by more than 80 descendants not only of the Hammond family but also of the enslaved population and, after emancipation, the hired workers that toiled on the four properties. At the dinner, I had a chance to talk to some of those in attendance.
The first group I met was a trio of descendants of Hammond’s daughter Elizabeth and her union with William Raiford Eve, a Confederate veteran and graduate of the medical school at the University of Georgia. James Hammond Eve IV of Charleston, and Evalan Eve Beck of Augusta, are both in the medical profession like their ancestor; Thomas Eve is in engineering, the president of Eve Marine Surveyors in Savannah. Conscious of the unusual nature of the gathering, all three seemed pleased to be, as Thomas Eve described it, “eyewitnesses to history.”
At the same table were two charming sisters, Roberta Jones Jenkins and Patricia Jones Crawford, both descendants of the union of Hammond’s grandson Alfred and Annie Wilson, granddaughter of Binah Hornsby, a former slave. Both grew up on their father’s dairy farm in Clearwater; Roberta eventually studied at Tuskegee and subsequently helped her husband set up his veterinary practice in California. Pat earned two degrees, one from UCLA and one from the University of Southern California, before working in an executive position at Wells Fargo.
Although both the Eve and Jones families have prospered in the intervening years, it is safe to say, as Roberta Jenkins pointed out, that the playing field was anything but level. Although the Jones family has long thought that Alfred Hammond wanted to publicly acknowledge the children of his mixed race union and give them his name, he could not. Instead, his descendants had to endure the indignities of segregation. Pat Crawford, for example, was the first African-American to integrate the high school in North Augusta. She spent a challenging two years as the only minority student in her class, but it was an experience that made her appreciate the achievements of their father, Sam Jones, as a black entrepreneur in the segregated South. Their father, Roberta Jenkins remembered, always used to say to his children that they had to work harder and never take anything for granted.
The stories they shared with me I hope are among the narratives recorded at the oral history booth the staff set up on the grounds that evening. Certainly, the redoubtable Elizabeth Laney, the park interpreter and the one person who knows most about the genealogy of all the families associated with the site, encouraged all in attendance to take a few moments that night to recount for posterity their personal histories.
The other activities planned for the evening included a slide show of family photographs, both vintage and contemporary. Some were culled from the John Shaw Billings scrapbook now housed at the South Caroliniana Library on the campus of USC in Columbia. Billings, a direct descendent of James Henry Hammond, deeded Redcliffe to the state upon his death in 1975. Capping off the evening was a group portrait, taken by inveterate local photographer Larry Gleason, on the front steps of the main house, much like the portrait featured on the cover of the DVD of “Shared History.”
All of the members of the staff of the Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site are to be commended for organizing and hosting such a meaningful undertaking.
A recipient of the Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at the University of South Carolina Aiken. For more information on Redcliffe Plantation, consult the relevant chapter in his book “Circling the Savannah” (Charleston, SC: The History Press).