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A Founding Father and Gullah culture.

The National Park Service traces the dual plantation heritage at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site near Charleston, South Carolina.

A trip to the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site near Charleston, South Carolina, offers an educational journey back in time, but it may also generate conflicting emotions among visitors today. Although no buildings survive from the late 18th to early 19th century when Pinckney lived there, exhibits in the interpretive center evoke an era of gracious plantation living among the state's landed elite and a time in America's political history when many patriarchs of those plantations helped build the new country's democratic institutions. Other parts of the exhibits, however, point to the painful institution of slavery that Underlay the political, economic, and social systems of the time.

We struggle to resolve the paradox that this country's experiment in liberty was sustained by its opposite--slavery--a struggle that goes on in American history, at historical sites, and in our own hearts and minds. Yet, as we do so, we also gain a fuller and more useful understanding of that time and its culture than we could possibly gain by considering one aspect alone.

It is thus with the Pinckney historic site, which opens a window into both the way of life of one member of America's founding generation and the Gullah traditions of his family's enslaved workforce.

Charles Pinckney (1757-1824) was one of South Carolina's delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and the site is the only National Park Service facility in the Southeast devoted to the Constitution and the life of one of its signers. The site, six miles northeast of Charleston, is located on 28 of Pinckney's original 715-acre estate known as Snee Farm, which he owned until 1817 along with six other plantations and a luxurious Charleston mansion. Much of our knowledge about life on Snee Farm results from archaeological research. The foundation for the Pinckney-era home has been located, as well as remnants of the kitchen building, housing for slave domestics or the overseer, and a slave quarters. Ponds and fields where rice, indigo, and cotton were cultivated have also been identified.

The one-and-a-half-story frame home on the property today is an example of a typical low-country (i.e., coastal South Carolina) planter's cottage but was constructed in the 1820s by a subsequent owner and now houses the historic site's interpretive center. In that center, audiovisual presentations, exhibits, displays, and period artifacts reveal important aspects of the Pinckney story.

The family was one of South Carolina's most important, and its members typified the tightly knit, slaveholding, landed elite. The Pinckney men were notable as attorneys and important colonial, state, and national political leaders. During the American Revolution, Charles Pinckney was one of many military officers captured by the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780. After independence, he was elected to Congress and led efforts to substantially revise the Articles of Confederation to strengthen the federal government, including allowing it to veto state legislation. Among the more than 25 of Pinckney's proposals that were incorporated into the final Constitution were those establishing an executive rather than a ceremonial presidency, a bicameral legislature consisting of a Senate and House of Representatives, and the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce.

The nettlesome issue of slavery proved one of the most disruptive during those discussions. When abolitionists proposed to immediately halt the importation of slaves, Pinckney vigorously defended continuation of the foreign slave trade, asserting that otherwise neither South Carolina nor Georgia could support the Constitution. Pinckney's threat won a compromise prohibiting federal interference with the slave trade for 20 years. In South Carolina, Pinckney supported the Constitution as a delegate to the state ratification convention, which approved the document in May 1788.

In 1789, Pinckney was elected governor of South Carolina on the Federalist ticket. He served four two-year terms, though by the late 1790s he rejected the Federalists as too elitist and joined the Democratic-Republican party. In the pivotal election of 1800, when Pinckney worked against incumbent Federalist President John Adams, his efforts won South Carolina and the presidency for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. This election was especially important because it was the first time power was transferred peacefully from one party to another, and Pinckney played a key role in it.

Pinckney's political life is just one aspect of the period depicted at this site. As an example of a working plantation, the recovered artifacts and the cultural landscape allow Snee Farm to illustrate themes from low-country slave life. Slavery had begun in South Carolina with its settlement in 1670, but the introduction of rice by the 1690s ensured the colony's dependence on black labor because Englishmen had little familiarity with rice culture, but Africans from certain places possessed the requisite technical skills. Even the wooden mortar and pestle widely used in the 18th century to "clean" rice is of African provenance.

The slave population in the state grew rapidly for at least a couple of reasons. First, rice demanded large numbers of workers as the most labor-intensive crop produced on the North American mainland. Not only did the land have to be cleared but, to create tidal irrigation, the contours of the earth had to be changed by constructing earthen dams, reservoirs, and canals to control the flow of water. According to Peter Wood, an authority on colonial South Carolina, more than 40 percent of Africans brought to the British mainland colonies from 1700 to 1775 arrived in South Carolina. In addition, Africans were more resistant to endemic diseases in the region such as malaria, so their life spans were relatively long by slave standards. As early as 1708, most residents were black slaves, and in parishes like St. James Goose Creek, north of Charleston, they constituted 80 percent of the population in 1720. This is why one observer said the place "looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people." South Carolina's black majority continued until the 1920s.

The patterns of import preferences also had an effect on the type of slaves in this area. The back-breaking labor and a low birth rate, combined with the increasing labor need, required continual slave importation for much of the 18th century. Thus the percentage of Africans (rather than native-born African Americans) in the slave population was substantially higher here than in any other colony. In fact, South Carolina had the dubious distinction of being the only state still importing Africans when Congress outlawed the foreign slave trade in 1808. In addition, low-country planters developed preferences for Africans from specific regions of the continent's western coast. These preferences were based upon the skills the people possessed or other qualities planters attributed to them. Africans from Senegambia and parts of the Windward Coast (i.e., Sierra Leone) were desired, for example, because of their familiarity with rice culture.

To take advantage of economies of scale, the commercial production of rice occurred on large plantations, in contrast to Virginia tobacco, which was typically grown on smaller farms. Historian Philip Morgan has determined that, by the 1770s, more than half of South Carolina's slaves resided in labor units of 50 or more. With only 46 slaves in 1787, Snee Farm was one of Charles Pinckney's more modest operations, but in this regard it was representative of many plantations close to Charleston that combined vegetable farming with staple crops. Even so, its labor force reveals important differentiation.

The interpretive center displays slave inventory for 1787, and from it we learn that Pinckney owned field hands, domestics, and artisans. Among the people listed is Cudjoe, who had managerial responsibility as the plantation driver. His skill as a sawyer complemented the four carpenters who built and maintained the wooden trunk gates that controlled the irrigation system. Field hands planted, harvested, and processed rice. Isaac, the cooper, constructed barrels for shipping the finished rice. All was not geared to staples, though; Snee Farm also contained ornamental gardens that were maintained by Pinckney's slave gardener.

Given the nature of its economy and demography, the Carolina low-country provided exceptional conditions for the survival of traditional African culture. Charles Pinckney's inventory lists several slaves by the African names they consciously maintained. Traditional practices were also adapted to Anglo-American conditions during the slave era, resulting in a regionally distinctive African-American culture known as Gullah. The origin of the term "Gullah" is the subject of some scholarly debate. Some locate its origin in the Gola people from Sierra Leone and Liberia today, while others trace it to the old Ngola region of today's Angola.

The best example of the survival of this distinctive culture is the Gullah language formed by the creolization or hybridization of English vocabulary by the introduction of African pronunciations, grammar, and syntax. In the 1930s and 1940s, linguist Lorenzo Turner studied Gullah and found more than 4,000 African words and personal names used by its speakers. Contemporary research by anthropologist Joe Opala and others has shown strong linguistic connections between Gullah and the Sierra Leonean languages Mende and Krio. The linkage was further illustrated in 1989 when a group of Gullah speakers visited Sierra Leone and both visitors and hosts were astounded by the relative ease of communication. As late as 1979, a study by the Summer Institute of Linguistics found an estimated 100,000 Gullah speakers. Although the language is now mainly spoken in casual, private conversation, such organizations as the Penn Community Center on St. Helena Island and the South Carolina African American Heritage Council are making efforts to preserve it.

Basketry is another distinctive aspect of Gullah culture. The tradition of basketmaking, well established in West Africa, can be observed at Snee Farm in the pictures of black women using fanner baskets to separate rice grains from the chaff. Early in the 20th century, Charleston merchants and tourists developed an interest in the baskets' ornamental appeal, and when Highway 17 was paved through Mount Pleasant in the 1930s, basketmakers built stands along the route to sell their wares. They can still be found there, in Charleston's downtown market and at the city's most historic intersection, the Four Corners of Law.

Many of the baskets made today are similar to those found in West Africa, but basketry is also a fluid enterprise as new styles emerge in response to market demand. Veteran basketmaker Joyce Coakley beams at the thought that the craft she learned as a child links her to Africa and requires such individual skill. "Each person's stitch is as different as their handwriting," she says, "and if my cousin's basket was displayed in a New York gallery, I could recognize it."

Over a decade ago, Coakley founded the Sweet Grass Cultural Arts Society to ensure the perpetuation of this tradition, and she recently taught basketmaking to 45 youngsters at summer camp. Finding an adequate supply of sweetgrass is one of today's greatest challenges as development encroaches on natural habitat, requiring some basketmakers to travel routinely as far as Florida to obtain the necessary natural materials. Attempts are also under way to cultivate sweetgrass on a site provided by Amoco Oil Company and the historic McLeod Plantation owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Gullah culture also has survived in foods featuring rice and okra, folktales with African trickster characters, and funeral practices including gravesite decoration and passing infants over an open grave to placate ancestral spirits. "Yet far too few people appreciate the significance of the Gullah story," says Michael Allen, lead ranger at the Pinckney site.

With 40,000 visitors to the site last year, perhaps that regrettable situation is changing. That is welcome news because only by understanding the forces that produced the Gullah culture and Charles Pinckney can we appreciate our common American heritage.

Dr. Bernard E. Powers, Jr., author of Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822 to 1885, is a professor of history, College of Charleston.
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Title Annotation:Charles Pinckney and the development of African-American culture
Author:Powers, Bernard E., Jr.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Words:1982
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