Volume One — Reconstruction
Nearly a year ago, I went to The King Center in Atlanta during a weekend trip with my beautiful wife. We drove down Auburn Avenue and I was honestly heartbroken by the poverty of the neighborhood. It paled in comparison to downtown and midtown Atlanta.
When we got to the King Center, I thought back to the last time I’d been to Dr. King’s tomb — during my teenage years. Sadly, not much had changed from my memory. In fact, the guard railing and caution tape took away from the somber regality of the tomb and waterfall.
The King Center wasn’t fit for a King.
I feel very similarly about Black history and how we celebrate our achievements. Next month, of course, is Black History Month (BHM), the time of year where we inadequately and predictably highlight the accomplishments of the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the usual folks we recognize.
Last year, we could barely recognize those folks for all of the companies using blackface to market their products in a troll-like fashion — hey, whether it’s positive or negative feedback, it’s all media, right?
Like The King Center, BHM and our interpretation of it needs some serious reconstruction.
Reconstruction is a fitting place to start. Most of our discussions about BHM involve the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s certainly understandable. However, Black folks’ contributions and triumphs do not all fall between the 1960s and emancipation from slavery.
Some of our most profound victories fall in between the period of slavery and Jim Crow. That period, from 1865-1877, is Reconstruction. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s perfectly fine, because very few people talk about it — we only talk about the residual and repressive effects of it.
In this column, I want to briefly talk about what Reconstruction means to the Aiken-Augusta area. We don’t have to look far; as we speak, city officials in North Augusta are weighing a “counter” to the white supremacist Meriwether Monument.
You read that correctly. At the time of this column, there is a monument which memorializes the life of Thomas Meriwether, the lone white victim of the 1876 Hamburg Massacre, which reads the following:
“In life, he exemplified the highest ideal of Anglo-Saxon civilization. By his death, he assured to the children of his beloved land the supremacy of that ideal.”
The Meriwether Monument, and post-Civil War monuments of their ilk are literal and living memorials to white supremacy. It is hard to look past these eyesores, except for one reason: they are in the way of our beautiful Black history.
Take the story of Hamburg, South Carolina. Have you ever seen the stone remnants in the Savannah River next to the Fifth Street Bridge? If you look at them directly across from the Fifth Street Marina, you’re looking right into the former town of Hamburg.
After the Civil War, freedmen — both free Blacks and freedmen (emancipated slaves) settled into Hamburg. It was a hub of Black achievement and progress. The South Carolina elections of 1868 produced the first majority black state legislature in U.S. history. A new state constitution was drafted and Aiken County, of which Hamburg was a par, was formed from parts of Edgefield, Lexington, Barnwell and Orangeburg Counties. It was the only South Carolina county formed during Reconstruction.
I wish I had the space to tell you more. I’ll simply say this — read up on the 1868 South Carolina Constitution. It abolished debtors’ prison, provided for public education and overturned the oppressive Black Codes from the 1865 constitution. Also, read Tiffany Mitchell Patterson’s article, “What Everyone Should Know About Reconstruction…”.
That progressive period in Black history — and yes, American history — was thwarted by white violence. In the next volume, we’ll talk about retribution.