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My Ancestor’s Slave Plantation

David Langness | Mar 15, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Mar 15, 2014

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

The Best Picture Academy Award for the film 12 Years a Slave reminded me of a trip I took to a plantation several years ago.

In Charleston, South Carolina for a conference, I learned that dinner would be held at a nearby plantation, which had been turned into a museum. I grudgingly went, having very little interest in visiting the monument to racism and slavery that Southern plantations represent – or so I thought.

We rode a bus out into the countryside, and pulled up in front of exactly what you would expect – an imposing white building with tall Doric columns set in the middle of a huge, grassy yard surrounded by willow trees. If plantation12 Years A Slaves could be typecast, this one fit the bill.

We went inside for a docent-led tour. The docents, all southern women in antebellum crinoline and lace, showed us the inside of the mansion. They gestured at the expensive furniture, noted the fine architecture, and talked about the exquisite taste of the white planter family who had owned the place prior to, and I swear they used this exact term, the “War of Northern Aggression.”

I just about choked.

A life-long resident of the western part of the US, I hadn’t expected this blind cultural rewrite of history. So I excused myself, saying that I needed to get some air, and asked where the slave cabins were. This time, the docents choked.

“Why?” one of them asked, obviously offended. “No one has ever asked that question before.”

“You’re joking,” I said.

“Well,” another docent snorted derisively, “If you really want to see that, you best look out back. I think there’s one left.”

I wandered out back by myself, dusk falling. I could hear a river flowing somewhere nearby. Cicadas buzzed. And sure enough, out in back of the big main house, in some tall weeds, I found one slave shack. Obviously this wasn’t part of the normal tour.

General Francis Marion

General Francis Marion

The shack stood on raised timbers maybe three feet off the ground, paint peeling and siding warped. I hopped up onto a ragged old porch, not sure if the boards would hold me. I looked in through a doorless opening. The only light came through big gaps in the siding, and it striped a scarred and cracked bare plank floor with bars of light.

At that moment I had a mystical experience, something I still find hard to explain.

I saw, in a corner of that slave shack, a short, bow-legged white man in a military uniform, his back facing me, strike a much bigger black man who cowered in a corner. Neither man said anything – the only sound was the crack of the blow of the short man’s fist on the black man’s flesh.

Then they were gone. I shook my head hard, trying to see if what I had witnessed was a waking dream or just my imagination. The detail of their dimly-lit figures faded quickly. The shack, empty and silent for so long, had only allowed me a glimpse.

I stood there and thought about what I’d seen for a minute. I reviewed my mind’s memory of the scene. Then I shook it off, went back inside the main house for dinner, and left afterwards to go back to my hotel.

Later that night, I suddenly remembered something my departed grandmother had told me two decades before. A lifelong Southerner and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I had asked her what the D.A.R. did. “It’s an organization of people who are related to the heroes of the Revolutionary War,” she had said. “And you, grandson, are part of that lineage.”

“Who am I related to?” I asked.

“Why, the same man I am,” she said. “Frances Marion. The Swamp Fox. He was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.” She counted off seven “greats” on her fingers.

I barely had any idea who Frances Marion was, beyond the Disney TV series called The Swamp Fox I watched as a kid. So that night in the hotel I spent a few hours online reading about my distant relative. I found out that Francis Marion had learned guerilla warfare from fighting the Cherokees during the French and Indian Wars, then led a band of South Carolina soldiers into the Revolutionary War, where he gained fame by harassing and outfoxing the British in a series of hit-and-run battles and skirmishes.

But I also learned that Francis Marion owned a South Carolina plantation and hundreds of slaves.

I learned, too, that from birth my nine-times-great grandfather had been a small man with malformed legs. Long thought of as a hero – dozens of US towns and counties are named after him – it turns out he also had a reputation for raping his slaves and brutally hunting and killing Cherokees for sport.

Filled with feelings I couldn’t name, I turned to the Baha’i writings for some insight and some solace, and found this passage:

The enveloping clouds shall pass away and the heat of the divine rays will dispel the mist. The reality of man shall develop and come forth as the image of God his creator. The thoughts of man shall take such upward flight that former accomplishments shall appear as the play of children; — for the ideas and beliefs of the past and the prejudices regarding race and religion have ever been lowering and destructive to human evolution. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 21.

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  • Jim Fowler
    Mar 1, 2018
    Classic example of Presentism. Of course we are more enlightened today than we were 250 years ago. You don't have to like everything your ancestors did to appreciate their place in history. For the record the name "Civil War" is a misnomer, as the south was not fighting to take over the entire country. It's more accurate to call it the "War for Southern Independence" not that different from the Revolutionary War. The South lost and their way of life was forced to change. No one will argue that chattel slavery is a horrible institution but the truth that slavery has been of human reality for millennia. Blacks, whites, browns and every other color of humankind have been enslaved throughout the pages of time. We learn, forgive & move on.
  • Jeff Spierling
    Feb 11, 2018
    Looks like I have another year long search for the Real Francis Marion. Ahhhhh the life of a historian. I will post if I find the Grail.
  • Maggie Wolfe
    Aug 31, 2017
    You know nothing about your ancestor. He took no pleasure in killing Indians and left a record of that. Indians were in his unit and Indians served under him . Your statements are modern BS without historical foundation. He owned 10 slaves, three of which had been in his family for two generations, one he taught to read and write, another was loyal to him during the Rev War even thought he would have been paid big money for turning Marion in. Marion would not allow Blacks from his Brigade to be sold & after ...the war supported giving those who served freedom "His" post war slaves belonged to the woman he married after the war ( on marriage all her property became his .) She was noted for how well she treated her servants.
  • Katie Stephens
    May 1, 2017
    Not sure why you think of nothing but oppression when you think of the South considering your ancestor helped free America from oppression. Sorry things weren't ideal in history, but it's not Marion's fault. Slavery happened. It happened numerous times throughout history. Only the elite owned slaves and not every owner was evil. There is no proof he abused or raped slaves. Nor is there anything to suggest he did other than a guardian article from 2001 that offers accusations without proof. Yes, he killed Indians. So did many others during the French Indian war. War is sad and horrible. ...I doubt Francis Marion killed Indians "for fun". It's sad that you can't see past your own biases to appreciate how important your relative was.
  • Dec 3, 2016
    This is an awesome article. I will place on my facebook. Thank you for sharing.
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