February is Black History Month, a time to learn more about — and to understand — the culture of those who were first brought to this country unwillingly.
Though slaves were taught many skills, they were not taught to read or write. As a result, the stories of their lives were passed onto their children and to their children’s children by spoken word.
During the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project recorded the oral histories of former slaves for the Library of Congress.
Sam Polite of St. Helena Island was interviewed by Chlotilde Martin of Beaufort, and his story was included in “Before Freedom: When I Just Can Remember.”
In the interview, Polite, who lived on Capers Plantation, recalled hearing a gunshot on Bay Point that signaled freedom. Imagine that feeling, finding out you are no longer property to be owned.
All the former slaves who participated in the Federal Writers Project in South Carolina were old and poor when they were interviewed. The youngest participant was 82.
The memories they shared told of the master-slave relationship, severe punishments for minor infractions, and having Sundays off to attend church. The slaves sang spirituals in their quarters. Some plantation owners allowed a traveling preacher to come by, so long as he didn’t cause problems.
The older female slaves knew how to make medicines from roots, herbs and barks. Chinaberries were boiled into a tea to cure colds and fevers.
Everything grown on the plantation was used: molasses, peas, cabbage and plenty of rice and corn.
Not all slaves worked in the fields, though. Some worked in the big house, sometimes called “the white house.” Sometimes plantation families secretly taught their slaves to read and write.
When the Yankees came down, Polite was sent to Barnwell, where he stayed for three years. After he returned to St. Helena Island, he had enough money to buy 15 acres.
It’s important for all of us to know each others’ histories, to know where we came from. In conjunction with Black History Month, consider planning a day to celebrate your own family histories and share stories with the younger generations.
In the words of an old spiritual, “By and by when the morning comes, we’ll understand it better by and by.”
Columnist Ervena Faulkner is a Port Royal resident and a retired educator who has always had an interest in food and nutrition.
Sweet Potato Pie
4 tablespoons margarine, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, cream together margarine and sugar. Beat together eggs and cinnamon. Mix together sweet potatoes and evaporated milk. Gently stir beaten eggs into the sweet potato mixture and stir in the margarine and sugar. Beat the mixture until well-blended and pour into the unbaked pie shell. Bake for 40 minutes.
Catfish Stew and Rice
2 medium potatoes
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, reserve juice
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup water
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cabbage head, coarsely chopped
1 pound catfish fillets
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups hot, cooked rice
Peel potatoes and cut into quarters. In a large pot, combine potatoes, tomatoes and their juice, onions, water and garlic. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Cook, covered, over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add cabbage. Return to boiling and then reduce heat. Cook over medium-heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cut fillets into 2-inch lengths. Cover with salt, pepper, chili powder and garlic powder. Add fish to vegetables. Reduce heat, simmer covered for 5 minutes until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve over hot, cooked rice.