John Sheirer: Where slaves left their imprint, vital lessons for today

Saturday, August 08, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — My wife and I recently visited South Carolina and walked directly by Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. To be honest, I didn’t notice this particular church. Charleston is rich in historic buildings and beautiful landmarks.

Another nearby church made a bigger impression because dozens of children played in its courtyard — kids of all races, laughing together in the steeple’s shadow.

Several weeks after that trip, when I woke to news of the stunning murders at Emanuel, one of my first thoughts was of Boone Hall, a slave plantation near Charleston that now serves as a tourist attraction. A row of slave cottages lines the long driveway leading to the main house. These small buildings made by the slaves themselves from bricks manufactured on the plantation were some of the South’s best slave quarters. Yet they were cramped, uncomfortable places barely better than the shanties where most of the plantation’s slaves lived.

One of the builders had pressed three fingers into a brick on the outside of one building as a way of leaving a signature that survives to this day.

I put my own fingers into the impression, reaching back more than a century to connect with the human being who had lived here, worked here, suffered here, and most likely died here as the property of other human beings who believed they were God’s chosen masters while others had the divine fate to be slaves.

No one who hasn’t lived in bondage could fully grasp how horrible a life of slavery must have been. But I felt far more empathy for the slave who had left that handprint than for the master who claimed ownership. I understand the argument that slave owners were a products of their time, but I still can’t accept that excuse for their actions.

As news unfolded about the troubled, hate-filled white shooter who is believed to have murdered nine African-Americans during a prayer meeting at Emanuel, I wished he had been at the plantation with us that day.

I wished he had seen the bare floors and brick walls where slaves lived out their days under the spirit-crushing boot heel of false ownership.

Had he seen these sights, how could the shooter possibly develop the racist views that led him the false belief that African-Americans are ruining our country. Slavery nearly brought our country to actual ruin. If the shooter had touched that handprint, surely he would have seen that our lives should be examples of why racism must not poison our nation.

When the shooter’s website was discovered, I was shocked to see that he had posted a photo of himself at that same Boone Hall Plantation. But while I had empathized with the slaves in their cabins, the shooter’s picture showed him posing at the plantation’s mansion.

He identified with the slavers, not the slaves. He connected with people who thought they were morally justified in owning other human beings. Instead of putting his fingers into that brick handprint, the shooter knelt before the “big house,” probably imagining himself as the master.

The shooter allegedly purchased his murder weapon with birthday gift money when he turned 21. I wish his present had been a tour of Boone Hall’s slave houses or a good history book. Perhaps someone could have enrolled him in a local GED program to earn the high school education he lacked. He might have developed the critical thinking skills needed to debunk the racist trash he devoured on right-wing websites.

Before the Civil War, many southern states banned educating slaves because slave owners thought learning would help slaves understand that slavery is morally wrong. While the Charleston shooter’s morals were severely underdeveloped, the slaves, regardless of their education, knew well enough that their own captivity was unjust.

One of the slave cabins at Boone Hall doubled as a church. Many slaves found community and comfort in these early black churches, but slave owners often suspected church activities encouraged independence and rebellion against captivity. The shooter committed his horrible crime in a black church. Did he understand the symbolism of attacking people in a place that has inspired the culture and spirit of African-Americans since the time of slavery? Had he ever seen children playing at Emanuel?

The shooter certainly knew what his beloved Confederate flag symbolized. The flag that he waved in his online photos recalls a history of treason, racism and slavery. What did he do with the American flag? He burned it. What did he think of equality, a founding principle that our nation hasn’t yet fully realized? He hated it so much that he murdered nine good people to try to ignite another Civil War. He failed.

Common sense and decency now prevail over false “heritage” narratives in the growing movement to remove the Confederate flag from public buildings.

The United States abolished slavery long ago. Yet we still have racial problems in large part due to the institutional racism represented by the Confederate flag and mansions built on the labor of people held in immoral captivity. Our nation is not yet perfect, and we can’t forget the worst aspects of our history. But we should all touch that handprint as we strive for “a more perfect union.”

John Sheirer is a teacher and author who lives in Florence. His monthly column appears every second Monday. Visit him at JohnSheirer.com.