Monday, April 17, 2017

An Illuminating Journey Down South to Charleston, Savannah and St. Augustine

Passover, the quintessential Jewish holiday of liberation and national identity ends Tuesday night. Exodus from four centuries of slavery. A time when Jews came together for a seder, traditional or not, hopefully to reflect on the values of human rights and the history of oppression, not just to their brethren, ancient and modern, but to all people including this year Syrians under fire in their native land and dispersed as refugees throughout the West, undocumented immigrants in America, the starving multitudes in eastern Africa, and, yes, even those Palestinians who would recognize Israel’s right to exist in peace as they too would like to live.

Gilda and I recently toured Charleston, SC, Savannah and St. Augustine for two weeks. It was as much an architectural embrace of some of our nation’s earliest cities as it was a passage back in time as we absorbed some of the history of the coastal Atlantic southern states.

Forty percent of the near half million souls who survived the barbaric, inhumane voyage as cargo from West Africa across the Atlantic Ocean on a journey from freedom to slavery in colonial America and the nascent United States came to our shores through Charleston (another 12 million were sent to South American and Caribbean lands). Charleston was considered the richest city in the New World until the importation of slaves was halted by Congress in 1808.

Anyone, virtually anyone, associated with merchant trading and shipping in Charleston engaged in the slave trade. That included Jewish merchants. They might not have had as many slaves as a plantation owner but Jewish households possessed slaves who, we were told by a Jewish guide, would often be included in the Passover seder ritual. How strange that must have been for slaves to hear a story of liberation and exodus while forced to live in bondage in, at the very least, figurative shackles. Is it any wonder that the song “Go Down Moses” with its haunting refrain of “Let my people go” became an anthem for their release?

Growing up in Saratoga Springs, NY, Gilda lived in a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing to Canada. But there was a southern spur to the railway. From the beginning of the 18th century, slaves fled south from Carolina and Georgia to Florida while Florida was under Spanish rule. Escaped slaves need only convert to Catholicism to be granted freedom in Spanish Florida. However, Florida changed hands several times over the next century. When the British and Americans ruled Florida their liberty vanished. Many former slaves fled again, this time to the Bahamas.

An irony of slavery in South Carolina is that the enslaved West Africans had the skills and experience needed to make the colony successful. The original crops planted— indigo, tobacco, sugar cane and cotton—did not flourish. But the English had brought with them an asset that changed their fortunes. Their West African slaves came from rice growing regions. They suggested the Carolina plantations situated along riverbanks were suitable for rice cultivation.

Unlike cotton, growing rice required lots of water and constant attention. Constant attention, in the region’s malarial and alligator-infested waters, required lots of manpower. In other words, lots of slaves. 

Dismiss the notion that just any ol’ slave would do. Plantation owners had specific needs and culled their purchases from a diverse but skilled assortment of human possibilities.

Far from being ignorant toilers, slaves were prized for their expertise in carpentry, masonry, smithing, barrel making, basket and net knitting, rice farming, and boat construction. Highly skilled slaves were often rented out by their owners to other plantations and businesses. They possessed the skills and trades necessary to clear land and channel waters to build rice paddies, plant and maintain rice, and separate the kernels from the hulls. 

A highly profitable cash crop sprouted up along the coastline. Carolina Gold—rice  exported to Europe—made plantation owners among the wealthiest Americans. Before the Revolutionary War Charleston was richer, more important, than New York, Boston or Philadelphia. As early as 1750 it was not uncommon for the gentry of Carolina to summer in Newport, RI, to escape the heat and mosquitoes of their plantations.

Rice grown on Middleton Place plantation outside Charleston made its owners one of the elite families of colonial and antebellum America. The Middleton family played a part in the momentous times of the era. 
Henry Middleton served as the second president of the First Continental Congress. His son, Arthur, signed the Declaration of Independence. Arthur’s son, Henry, became governor of South Carolina and a minister to Russia. His son, Williams, signed the Ordinance of Secession prior to the Civil War. 

King Cotton is a phrase often associated with the South and indeed, after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, cotton production, and slavery, expanded exponentially as America developed more lands westward of the Atlantic. Rice, however, made planters wealthy, at least until the end of the Civil War. 

With the end of slavery, cheap labor disappeared. Plantation owners encountered new competition from more mechanized rice farmers in upland counties, while a series of devastating storms destroyed most of the dykes that formed their rice paddies. Today, rice production is mostly a historic foundation of coastal South Carolina’s past.

The state tree of South Carolina is the palmetto in honor of the service it provided during the Revolutionary War. To prevent the British from capturing Charleston, Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island at the mouth of the harbor was constructed from palmettos trees. In late June 1776 a British fleet of nine warships pounded the fort but cannonballs simply bounced off the soft, resilient palmettos. The navy retreated after sustaining damages. Attacking by land four years later, the British succeeded in taking Charleston. 

One of the more spectacular sights of Charleston and Savannah are the Live Oak trees. An oak tree, to me, had always conjured up images of a tall, stately tree that shed its leaves each fall. Live oaks, however, retain leaves throughout the year.

Often draped in Spanish moss (an epiphyte plant that is not harmful to other vegetation), live oaks have numerous expansive limbs that can span as much as 100 feet. They provide abundant shade and give the tree a majestic look. Live oaks can live for hundreds of years. Their deep, strong roots preserve them during storms, even hurricanes. 

During our time in St. Augustine Gilda and I stayed in a bed and breakfast on the oldest street in America, Aviles Street, which dates back to the 1570s (parts of the B&B, the Casa de Solana, trace their construction to the 1760s). 

St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited European-established city in the United States, having been founded in 1565 by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida's first governor

I could be wrong but I believe most Americans, especially those who grew up and were educated along the Eastern Seaboard, the region of the original 13 British colonies, do not fully appreciate the contributions of Spanish colonials to the development of America. Our orientation is toward our link to Britain.

It is illuminating to realize the list of Spanish introductions to America includes horses, cattle, pigs and citrus fruit. But that’s not all. Here’s a link to a BuzzFeed article recounting 14 contributions Latinos have made to America:

The by-no-means-comprehensive-list becomes all the more interesting and poignant given the attitude Donald Trump has taken toward the Hispanic community.

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