On March 3, 1859, the largest slave auction in American history took place in Savannah, Georgia. The event was called “The Weeping Time” partly due to the rainy weather that attendees of the sale would later remark upon in their journals and letters, and partly due to the wailing of human families and communities torn apart by the atrocity of human chattel slavery. The event was big news at the time, even reporters from New York arrived to cover the story. But in years that followed, the story of the Weeping Time was muted by historical revision and omission in the effort to burnish the Lost Cause as something more noble than a conflict over keeping humans in bondage. While Savannah sells itself to tourists as a destination steeped in history and tradition, it did not have a historical marker to note this very real historical atrocity until 2008.
Some history sells better than other history, and it is helpful to remember that what we are sold as history may not be a remotely complete picture. The reason I bring this up is because I grew up on St. Simons Island, the location of the Hampton Plantation from which humans were sold at The Weeping Time. I can recite a litany of oft repeated stories about Coastal Georgia history, but this one was a shocking blind spot for me.
This blind spot is not accidental. Throughout my childhood, I was treated to field trips to many local historic sites and told many stories about the importance of my hometown to American history. Fort Frederica is an ancient British settlement, marking Georgia’s status as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the riches of the colonial Carolinas. The Battle of Bloody Marsh, a skirmish between those same warring British and Spanish, took place on the Island. The Battle famously marked the last time the Spanish crown attempted to move up the Atlantic coast.
The sheer volume of history for my small hometown hardly stops there. Brunswick, the town across the river where I attended one of the oldest continuously operating public schools in the United States, was laid out in an urban planning model similar to that of Savannah – both designed by Renaissance man James Oglethorpe. On Jekyll Island to the immediate south, the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and other famous families of the Gilded Age made their winter homes. During WWII, Brunswick’s factories turned out dozens of Liberty Ships to carry Allied war machines to assault Fortress Europe. Hell, I lived on SSI when the most powerful world leaders convened on Sea Island for the G8 Summit in 2004. They called that “historic” on the news.
But there is also a deep and muted history to be found where I grew up. This is not history that sells easily, because telling some truths make people uncomfortable. The discomfort is especially acute if you’re the kind of person who always believes your cultural forebears were the “good guys,” and like to keep your distance from information that challenges that assumption. The problem with muting this kind of history is that it keeps you deaf to the diverse voices that make up a community.
That omission can be massive. Make no mistake, this muted history arguably had a more pronounced impact on United States history. For example, The Wanderer was the last slave ship to reach the United States, and did so when the import of humans from Africa was forbidden under US law. I must wonder if those laws were an attempt to wither slavery on the vine, or served as populist protections to keep foreign businesses from competing with homegrown merchants in human beings. Either way, the Wanderer was a racing yacht purchased by a cabal of Georgia Fire-Eaters, determined to re-ignite world slave trade. Outfitted to conceal her purpose and dodging the British and American Navies, the Wanderer disembarked her then-illegal human cargo near Jekyll Island in an attempt to provoke Southern secession years earlier than Sumter. The owners were arrested, tried, and were not convicted by a jury of their Southron peers. They were instead celebrated as heroes and had counties, streets, and towns named after them after the Civil War they wanted to start ended up with so much of Georgia in ashes.
There is also Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island. This is the one bit of history I knew about as a child, due mainly to the research and artwork of my best friend’s father. He would help host a forum on the event at what is now the College of Coastal Georgia back when it was just Brunswick College, an attempt to help share the history of how a proud group of Africans revolted on a slave ship. They won the day, but having no knowledge on how to operate the craft, these proud people chose to walk into the waters of Dunbar Creek, drowning in victory rather than living in chains. While this heartbreaking history was kept as a legend among the Geechee all among Georgia and South Carolina’s sea islands, which said the Ibo turned into birds to fly back to Africa over the waves, to whites like me it was little more than a ghost story. With little official historical research to illuminate the event, it stayed that way until only recently. Art and cultural critics make a case that Ibo Landing was partially the inspiration for visuals now popularized in Beyonce’s music video for Love Drought, which is helping get more people interested in the event.
This history – The Weeping Time, The Wanderer, Ibo Landing – was muted from my childhood intentionally because acknowledging human suffering, cultural legacies, and social debts make for uncomfortable lessons. It is important these stories are told now, and that we no longer shy away from their truth. Told together, these three heartbreaking histories dwarf the Battle of Bloody Marsh in both human cost and American impact.
I think about that as we hear the news in New Orleans that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the city can, in fact, take down the monuments to Lost Cause remembrance. I find there are so many parallels between New Orleans and Coastal Georgia in what history is celebrated and what is muted; what history is put out on display for both the next generation and the tourists.
Robert E. Lee was not elevated to command the Army of Northern Virginia until after New Orleans had surrendered to Union troops, and had no history in this city. Jefferson Davis’s claim to fame was dying here. PGT Beauregard is remembered in battle dress upon a horse instead of his post-war attempts to reconcile race relations in this city so that everyone in town could make money. The Liberty Place monument celebrates a riot against the integrated Metropolitan Police and progressive Reconstruction government of New Orleans; the Metropolitans led by Lee’s right-hand man James Longstreet, whose monument is conspicuously absent from these city streets. Even in the monuments themselves, there are omissions to the very history they are said to represent.
It makes me wonder how many young men like me grow up here and never learn all the history New Orleans doesn’t try very hard to tell. The German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in US history. Oscar Dunn, the first elected Lt. Governor of a US State. Homer Plessy. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), first convened in New Orleans as the Southern Leadership Conference. Ruby Bridges, escorted into school by armed federal agents. Like the Weeping Time back home, they are all histories you have to look hard for in New Orleans, if you even know to look for them at all.
Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.