Cultural Contact: A Columbia College Student’s Experience with “Between the Waters”

By Brynna Gregg, Intern

I have begun to relate history to geology. Just as geologists can drill into the earth and see stratified layers of rock, we can see layers of culture and history imbued in any given place. The American South is filled with these layers of life: from First Nations tribes to European settlers and eventually plantation owners and their slaves to all classes of people, black or white. The tremendous wealth of history here can be overwhelming, but a study of the South’s “geology” can be possible by looking at Hobcaw Barony.

Waccamaw Neck has been home to many people groups throughout history, and they all come together at Hobcaw. Archaeological digs provide information on the Native Americans who came before, Bellefield and the Baruch mansion illustrate the lives of wealthy twentieth- century Northerners, and the vernacular architecture of Friendfield Village shows the much different lives of the African Americans who worked for the Baruchs. As we dig deeper into any aspect of Hobcaw Barony’s past, we can start to see a cross-section of many lives. Of course, no one culture exists in a vacuum, and though the African Americans and Baruchs mostly functioned separately, their interactions provide an interesting glimpse into the attitudes of the time. Trying to make sense of this interplay can give insights into our thoughts and actions today. Educational efforts to explore various perspectives of South Carolina’s past have increased in the past few decades. This is a crucial step towards understanding its present.

clambank-landing-w-decoys-c-1910

Clambank Landing, Hobcaw Barony, c. 1905

 

While I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, there wasn’t much emphasis in my education on issues of slavery and African-American history. Though I learned the histories of First Nations people, the lack of any significant African-American community in the Northwest meant their history was shown to be only something that happened ‘way over there in the South.’ This disassociation from the issues of racism (past and present) made me feel safe, especially as I was so far removed from the physical places of their history. But avoiding the difficult questions did not solve anything, and it is this mindset that prohibits any growth or understanding.

When I started going to school in South Carolina, I was struck by the stark racial inequalities that no one else seemed to notice. The general mindset seemed to be “this isjust how it is.” I’ve come to realize that the fault may not lie in the people in themselves but in what they inferred from their education. While schools do teach the history of African Americans—from slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter—it’s
almost always from a white perspective and alongside white history. Often, when multicultural history is taught, information is left out. Students from all cultures may be taught a distorted vision of themselves and others, and at the very least may be misinformed about their history. The only way to change this mindset is to introduce and value a new perspective.

minnie_1965

Minnie Kennedy with Students, 1965

 

As an intern for the Between the Waters project, I continue to learn every week. Going ever deeper into the website, I begin to make connections about different people and places and events. It’s a new perspective on the South for me, a way to learn and reflect on things I never understood. There are times when the things I read put my heart in my throat—the Baruch children’s playhouse had running water and could have housed an entire family, while none of the black households ever had plumbing—and the basic knowledge of this inequality remains with me. No longer is it only a historical fact, but I now have Minnie Kennedy choking up while telling me about this playhouse and I can see for myself the difference between her childhood home and the Baruchs’ mansion.

doll-house

Belle and Renee Baruch at Dollhouse, c. 1910

Because the users of the website are allowed to explore Hobcaw Barony at their own pace and in their own manner, its effect is deep and powerful. Viewers may focus on the Baruch mansion or the African-American villages, or they may jump between the two. The history of the wealthy white family is here, and the history of its black employees as well. The stories and information are given in a neutral way, allowing the readers to come to their own conclusions about the complex relationship between employer and employee, black and white, wealthy and poor.

The mere fact that viewers can enter through the “front door” or the “back door”—along with the wealth of stories and information about the African-American residents—gives the website a necessary perspective. As we come to see the world of Hobcaw Barony through the eyes of Minnie Kennedy, Joshua Shubrick, and ­­­­Robert McClary, we realize that the history of a place is made by many participants, not just the white ones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s