If you ever wondered why South Carolinians continue debating the causes of the Civil War a century and a half after it ended — every major historian will tell you it was clearly about slavery — just know this: Most public school students in the state during most of the 20th century were taught from books that were written by the daughter of a slave owner and Confederate soldier.
Mary C. Simms Oliphant was the author of history books used in S.C. schools from the 1920s to the 1980s. She wrote about happy slaves, and with sympathy for the KKK and had little to nothing to say about iconic black South Carolinians such as Denmark Vesey. After I mentioned her in a blog post during the Confederate flag debate, I heard from Felicia Furman, and I thought our conversation was worth sharing.
“Mary C. Simms Oliphant was my grandmother,” she said. “And you’re right; her history books were racist to the core. Even as a child, I recognized this. She was completely oblivious. Furthermore, her grandfather was a slave owner in Bamberg County. See www.sharedhistory.org for my acknowledgment of this loathsome legacy that follows me today.”
Furman, a filmmaker who has lived in Colorado for the past three decades, has spent a good bit of her adult life trying to correct that wrong.
She helped pull together the documentary “Shared History” in which the descendants of slaves and slave owners from her grandfather’s plantation came together in unity. Now she’s working on a piece about the other side of her family, including Baptist ministers who wrote about “the benefits of slavery” and founded Furman University.
Bailey: What effect do you think your grandmother’s work has had on the beliefs of average South Carolinians when it comes to things such as the Civil War, Confederate flag, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.?
Furman: The books I believe were for the third and seventh grades, and I assume most children just accepted what they were being taught. They certainly learned about the Civil War “heroes” from the Southern point-of-view through her books. We were right in the midst of the Civil Right Movement when I was in grammar school. I’m 63. I was horrified to see on television the brutality and unfairness of the white police and white antagonists toward blacks. Those images made a big impact on me. I think South Carolinians who went on to college after high school eventually rejected my grandmother’s racism; I hope so.
My grandmother was exasperated by the Civil Rights Movement and use to say, “I’m sick to death of women and blacks.”
Clearly she knew that her fantasy of the South was being challenged, and it irritated her.
Bailey: How do you feel about your grandmother’s work?
Furman: I wish my grandmother had been able to rise above her legacy as a Southerner deeply entrenched in the belief that blacks were inferior to whites. I don’t think she thought that there was an African-American history; it was all about the prominent white men.
One day, she and my mother were having a discussion about the use of the work “darky” in the book. My mother said she had to take it out, but she protested. Finally, I gave her my unsolicited opinion about the word — that she couldn’t use it in her book because it was not a nice word.
She looked at me in horror and said: “But, Felicia, that was their pet name. They loved to be called darkies.”
I feel sad that the books were so biased. But she wrote what parents wanted to hear, what the white public believed already. But she did have the power to change the tide. I’m sorry she was not able to do that.
Bailey: How do you feel about her personally?
Furman: Was my grandmother demonic and vile because she turned a blind eye to the reality of history? Her beliefs were totally ingrained and she spent little time outside of the South. So her vision was limited. She inherited the idea of paternalism from her slave owning grandfather, in that she believed that blacks were like children who must be taken care of.
She was charming and powerful and a beloved figure in South Carolina — to white people. She didn’t hate black people; she thought they were inferior to whites and should remain in a service class. She would have been horrified by the murders in Charleston. I remember my mother telling me that as a little girl she called a black man delivering coal to the house (the n-word). She said she was jerked up and severely punished and was told she must “save her best manners for those that cannot defend themselves.”
My grandmother knew the delicate balance of black life and strove to keep everyone in his place.
Contact Mr. Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ijbailey