“In the 1700s, South Carolina was the largest exporter of rice in the world.”
So read the display at the Rice Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina. That must be a mistake. I remember my disbelief, even now, over twenty years later. Which part of the statement was wrong, though?
Rice! I am Chinese. I know rice. I’ve seen – and pitied – rice farmers. I’ve seen them calf deep in water – barefoot, shirtless, sweat glistening on their backs. I’ve watched their conical hats bob up and down as they bend to plant each stalk. Yeah, I’ve seen them, but in China and Hong Kong. Not in South Carolina.
Eighteenth century? My image of America in the 1700s is one of frontier, log cabins, hardscrabble farming. Largest exporter in the world?
Georgetown is about an hour south of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Tired of the Midwest chill, Bill and I were taking a golf vacation in Myrtle Beach. So it was that, on a day when the rain didn’t let up, we got in the car and just drove.
We had no destination. The gray day, the deserted road, pine branches dripping rain did not hint at any historical grandeur. If we went far enough south, we’d get to Charleston. I yearned for a Starbucks. When we saw the turnoff for Georgetown, we took it on a whim.
Like Hansel and Gretel coming upon a gingerbread house in the forest, we were stunned by this gorgeous town. It exuded charm … and wealth. Solid homes with wide porches, porticos, columns. So many! So well-maintained! Sleek boats tied up to the waterfront. Georgetown had obviously been around for some time, and had money. And the rain had quit.
There was one discordant note – a sour, acrid odor – the unmistakable stench of a paper mill. “I guess the wind is blowing the wrong way today,” Bill said.
You can’t miss the Rice Museum. Its clock tower overpowers the town center, the way the rice trade dominated commerce from the late 1600s until after the Civil War. South Carolina exported 10,000 pounds in 1698. By 1730, that had increased to 20 million pounds. The rice, aptly called Carolina Gold, was the cash crop.
Rice growing in South Carolina depended on controlling the tidal action on the estuaries of local rivers. To do this, planters built extensive earthen levees and dug irrigation channels. Well, not the planters, exactly. Enslaved Africans did.
The physically-taxing process of growing, harvesting and getting rice to market is detailed in Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family. The slave trade boomed, and those captives from rice-growing areas of Africa were sought after. The plantation owners became fabulously rich, their wealth based on rice … and on race.
Nearby was Hopsewee Plantation, which had produced indigo and rice. A few demonstration indigo plants poked out of the ground. We toured the antebellum manor house.
Then the other shoe dropped. These people were not only rich, but they had political clout. Thomas Lynch, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born at Hopsewee. Rice planters, and even a Charleston slave trader, played prominent roles in this country’s founding.
One example of their influence is the Three-fifths Compromise in the Constitution. Counting enslaved people as three-fifths of a person in the census gave the slave states substantially more representation in Congress. Then, as now, the number of representatives allotted to each state in the House of Representatives is in proportion to its population as part of the national population. Even though they had no say over any aspect of their own lives, enslaved persons increased the Southern states’ representatives in Congress by about one-third.
This centuries-old history of a minority having outsized influence is a prerogative that some still take for granted. Or, as Edward Ball put it in Slaves in the Family, “a sense of what it means to be entitled, an invisible psychological support and a feeling that one might deserve whatever is on offer from the world.”
He would know. His ancestor, Elias Ball, arrived in Charleston from England in 1698. The family came to own twenty-five plantations around the Charleston area. Ball published the National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family in 1998, about the time Bill and I were wandering South Carolina. The 2014 edition has a new introduction.
Before “23 and Me,” before official acknowledgement of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’s descendants, before Henry Louis Gates’s “Finding Your Roots,” Edward Ball dissected his own heritage.
He also wanted to reckon with the history of the people that his family owned: “Balls lived side by side with black families for six generations.” He wondered if he might be related to some of the descendants of the family’s slaves. Figure it out from the title of the book!
As he put it, the “common tradition is this: The men in our family did not sleep with their women slaves—however, everyone knew that on the plantation next door, those men had sex with enslaved women.”
Writing the book was an intellectually and emotionally challenging task. Intellectually because he had to trace 400 years of history. The good – and the bad – news was that his family records comprised over ten thousand pages.
The emotional aspect was even more daunting. Ball said, “To contemplate slavery—which for most Americans is a mysterious, distant event—was a bit like doing psychoanalysis on myself.”
Most of the Ball relatives didn’t want their dreamy, glorious past to be sullied by unsavory revelations. The Black descendants of the Ball slaves were often suspicious. He won some of them over, partly by offering documented information about their ancestors.
It’s been over twenty years since both our visit to Georgetown and the publication of Slaves in the Family. There have been significant changes. For one thing, there are so many more Starbucks. And as I’ve noted, DNA analysis is an irrefutable arbiter of who one’s relations are.
And there’s the Internet! Hopsewee’s website still touts Thomas Lynch, Jr., but it also advertises “Gullah Tours” that focus on the experiences of enslaved Africans. Georgetown’s website showcases a young, Black mayor. Its “History” page does not stint on the contributions of enslaved persons to the rice economy.
That economy, by the way, collapsed after the Civil War. No surprise. In the early part of the twentieth century, lumber companies bought much of the land, and in the 1930s, the paper mill arrived.
It is clear to me that money sways politics, and people see what they want to see. It behooved the folks who lived in gracious plantation homes to rationalize the suffering of those who supported their lifestyle. True then, true twenty years ago. As we were leaving Georgetown, we stopped at a bookstore. While paying for our souvenir, I asked the sales woman if the paper mill smell was better on other days. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “What smell?”
Tell me: Have you bumped into History when you least expected to?