Blacks got written out of history in the Jim Crow South.
They were ignored. As if they did not exist.
It didn’t take a PhD to see all the signs of this.
Our paper has reported, for example, the lack of information on black high school athletes — decades of stars simply missing. “Beaufort County’s forgotten black athletes,” it was called.
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And there was the time I wrote a column about the 100th anniversary of the death of Robert Smalls. I turned to the old Beaufort Gazettes of 1915 to read about the funeral of a man born into slavery in Beaufort before becoming a Civil War hero and a five-term Congressman. Not only was there not a single word on the funeral, there wasn’t a word about his death.
Robert Smalls was too big to be written out of history, the way they tried to do.
But when I wrote about the 50th class reunion of the Robert Smalls High School class of 1964, the musty bound editions of the all-black school’s hometown paper wrote the kids out of history. Not a word was written in The Gazette about these invisible students, one of whom grew up to head the county’s Department of Social Services and chair the Beaufort County Board of Education.
And how about all the Hilton Head Islanders who have endured the indignity of newcomers claiming to have built the first this, that and the other, without a thought about the Gullah society that existed on Hilton Head long before they arrived.
But finally, more people are concluding that it does not have to be this way, that it should not be this way, and time is wasting to fill in all those gaping blanks in our own small towns.
The town of Bluffton, to its everlasting credit, is now offering a concrete way to do that.
For the next two Saturdays, it is sponsoring “Bluffton History Harvest” events for the public to come tell their stories.
“Share your photos, stories, and memorabilia to help us better understand the layers of Bluffton’s history,” its flyer says. “We want you to help us tell the town’s story!”
Professionals will be there to record your stories, document your photographs and learn about places and buildings important to the missing history.
The first event will be Saturday, Nov. 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Bluffton Library’s large meeting room, 120 Palmetto Way. The second will be Saturday, No.v 17, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Historic Campbell Chapel AME Church, 23 Boundary St.
For further information, contact Erin Schumacher, the town’s principal planner for historic preservation, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-706-4561.
In a town news release, Mayor Lisa Sulka says, “Town leaders and staff members want to know more about the layered history of Bluffton’s African American community. We believe the Gullah-Geechee culture and its historic resources are underrepresented in the properties currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places for the Town of Bluffton. We hope to change that.”
Town Council member Fred Hamilton said, “Many of our residents attended classes at M.C. Riley High School or played baseball on Eagles’ Field or grew up in Bluffton when it was still considered a rural area. We want to hear from those residents. Their everyday stories are building blocks for Bluffton’s history.”
This, dear friends, is progress.
Was there a Grand Army of the Republic hall? Where were the social halls, the benevolent societies, the burial societies, the stores, the swimming places, the praise houses or the witch doctors?
Who sang in the quartets and choirs? Who were the healers, the inventors, the preachers, the entrepreneurs, the soldiers, the educators, the ones with the courage to stand against Jim Crow?
Michael Allen is helping in this Bluffton project, along with the National Park Service and Brockington and Associates, the historic preservation consultants that we last heard from as they tracked the untold history of Spring Island.
Allen is retired from the National Park Service, where he helped bring African American history to the forefront in the Charleston area over his long career.
He says the “history harvests” can help us “see what was hidden in plain sight.”
He said it’s happening across the country.
And he said, “We’re better for it.”