Moore on Megginson, 'African American Life in South Carolina's Upper Piedmont, 1780-1900'

Author: 
W. J. Megginson
Reviewer: 
Peter Moore

W. J. Megginson. African American Life in South Carolina's Upper Piedmont, 1780-1900. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. xvii + 546 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-626-2.

Reviewed by Peter Moore (Department of History, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi) Published on H-SC (July, 2007)

Much Changed, Much Stayed the Same

This book treats the history of African Americans in South Carolina's old Pendleton District (present-day Oconee, Pickens, and Anderson Counties in the far northwestern corner of the state) from the late eighteenth century to the dawn of the Jim Crow era. Because it was on the margins of the cotton belt and never achieved a black majority, historians of African American life have largely neglected Pendleton and places like it across the upper South. Nor have many historians ventured across the Civil War divide to examine continuity and change within black communities after emancipation. Megginson's book fills both of these holes in the literature, providing an exhaustive if sometimes disjointed account of 120 years of African American history in one small place. Pendleton's first African Americans were slaves brought to the upper piedmont by migrant whites in the two decades after the Revolutionary War. Small slaveholdings and frequent interactions with whites inhibited the development of black families, communities, and subcultures during these early decades. By the same token, this charter generation of slaves enjoyed "more latitude in daily life" (p. 17) than their lowcountry counterparts, and race relations were relatively fluid, though this did not prevent occasional violent resistance from slaves and brutal reprisals from masters. One particularly memorable example is the attempted poisoning of John Ewing Colhoun, which resulted in the whipping and dismemberment of four slaves and the hanging of a fifth.

Such relatively isolated incidents prefigured much more severe repression in the 1820s, when fears generated by the DenmarkVesey conspiracy fueled five slave executions, including one who was publicly burned alive. Even so, brutality was but one part of the complex picture of slave life during the antebellum era. Hedged about by state slave codes and increasingly policed by slave patrols, upstate slaves nonetheless managed to create semi-autonomous communities and a viable subculture. They formed families, developed their own microeconomy, and enjoyed enough mobility to establish an extensive communication network across the upcountry. This subculture was strengthened by emancipation as families reunited, many freedpeople adopted new names, and African Americans established their own churches and schools. Though the Union Leagues and Reconstruction-era dreams of land redistribution were short-lived, the black community persisted and served as a foundation for longer-term growth in the standard of living, gradually rising levels of literacy, land ownership, and strong black institutions by the close of the nineteenth century.

This is not a thesis-centered book. It is the author's intent to "encompass rather than exclude," to give "a more rounded understanding of an African American community" than a thesis-driven study would provide (p. 9). Yet there are a number of themes that guide Megginson's research and analysis, around which he organizes much of his material: the nature and extent of white legal, political, and cultural control; the development of a separate black subculture within the confines of a majority-white community; and the persistence of this subculture, and this control, over several generations and across the Civil War. Faced with circumstances beyond their control, African Americans in northwestern South Carolina carved out a social and cultural space of their own and shored up this space over time, despite the restraints imposed on them, sometimes brutally, by the ruling race.

It is a familiar story, and this points to one of the great weaknesses of this book. There are no new questions here; rather, Megginson retells the story of black life in the region from a local perspective. It is regional history writ small, where larger events are simply played out at the local level. For more than thirty years, community studies (and microhistories generally) have functioned to complicate regional narratives, not merely by identifying exceptions to broader patterns but by showing how local forces--families, neighborhoods, markets--drive social, economic, and institutional change. Given the depth and quality of Megginson's research, he has many opportunities to take his analysis in this direction and shed new light on a saturated field, but he misses them. For example, he ascribes the spikes in slave executions in the 1820s and 1850s to various "societal stresses" (p. 80) resulting from the Vesey conspiracy, rising cotton prices, and sectional conflict. Likewise, similar "societal stresses" (pp. 105, 110) led to increases in both the number of slaves excluded from white churches and the number of new slave converts joining those churches. In both of these cases, a closer look at local conditions might reveal some hidden and purely localized tensions that produced these patterns, complicating the larger regional narrative and highlighting the local sources of social and institutional change. Instead, the author provides purely speculative links between these local events and external issues, concluding that slaves in the upper piedmont were simply "suffering for conditions elsewhere" (p. 80).

Despite these missed opportunities, this book is a welcome addition to the literature on nineteenth-century African American history, particularly on the antebellum side. As Megginson notes, there are few concentrated studies of slave life in white-majority areas, leaving us with little more than conjecture about how slaves fashioned communities and subcultures outside the tidewater and cotton belt. The paucity of sources that has led to this neglect makes Megginson's achievement all the more impressive, for he has written a detailed and densely researched study, uncovering mounds of evidence on every conceivable aspect of African American life in this community. It is at times encyclopedic, with information on migration and settlement, the nature of work, clothing, food, housing, holidays, festivals, schools, politics, and black thought. Its treatments of families, crime and punishment, and Reconstruction politics are especially interesting and should prove useful to historians, as should his careful analysis of census data. Most importantly, this book reminds us once again of the overwhelming obstacles black southerners faced in the nineteenth century--slavery, tenancy, poverty, disenfranchisement, debt peonage, brutal racism, lynching, segregation--and their remarkable ability to transcend them and create enduring communities, subcultures, and institutions.

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Citation: Peter Moore. Review of Megginson, W. J., African American Life in South Carolina's Upper Piedmont, 1780-1900. H-SC, H-Net Reviews. July, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13371

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