At the invitation of a Bratton descendant, I returned for my second overnight in the one extant slave dwelling at Historic Brattonsville. Although it was a return visit, this stay broke new ground in several ways.
First of all, I was the Slave Dwelling Project ambassador on my own. Joe McGill and Terry James were sleeping overnight at another location. One of our desires for the future of the Slave Dwelling Project is that people who have participated in a Slave Dwelling Project overnight feel confident and capable in conducting an overnight on their own, with whatever group they wish to bring together. The Bratton descendants seem well on their way to that point.
Another new experience for the Slave Dwelling Project was that the overnighters were all women. On Friday night, I joined four women with arms full of bedding to make our way through the gathering dark to the brick slave dwelling on the old Bratton plantation near McConnells, South Carolina. All of the women are descendants of people important to the plantation and the wider community, so the night’s conversation was expansive and rich.
How was the experience different with only women? I can only speak very subjectively, but it was easy, it was funny, it was like girls together in the dorm. There were pink p.j.s, hair curlers, and snacks. Each of us changed into her sleeping wear without needing to leave the cabin. We talked a lot about people and relationships, especially our kinfolk. Do those factors make a difference of some kind? I think so. I think the sense of being at a slumber party made it easy and comfortable to talk about ways in which white people are silly or insensitive about black people and aspects of American history. It made it natural to be surprised at how willing the descendants of the Brattonsville enslaved people are to return to the plantation for reunions and commemorations, and be disappointed at how unwilling other descendants are to talk about anything except recipes and the weather.
The final new feature for the Slave Dwelling Project was the inclusion of personal and local history from the Reconstruction period. And some of that history is complicated and uncomfortable.
The easier side of Reconstruction history is the story of how Green and Malinda Bratton began to save up and buy land – $100 saved over 12 years, 10 acres purchased by 1878. Churches were started, children had schooling, and burial grounds were marked and tended.
But the hard side of Reconstruction history in up country South Carolina is marked with fire, beatings, rape and murder, night riders and Klansmen. One of my overnight companions is descended on her mother’s side from enslaved families of the area. On her father’s side, her lineage goes back to Klan members who perpetrated a lynching right there in Brattonsville. Her complicated personal lineage is a microcosm of the complicated history of the region, and it turned out that history was to be told during the next day’s re-enactment day, “By the Sweat of Their Brows.”
The interpretive strategy of this historic site has expanded, from the Revolutionary War period, with the story of the heroic defeat of the British Loyalists by the back-country Whig rebels on the nearby Williamson Plantation, and beyond the antebellum decades of the Bratton family’s success and prosperity, to including a unique piece of Reconstruction history which ultimately led to anti-Klan legislation being passed by the U.S. Congress. Several times during the course of the Saturday, an historic interpreter told the story of Jim Williams.
Jim had escaped slavery on the nearby Rainey plantation, fought with the Union Army for a year or so, and then returned to Brattonsville in 1865. He took the surname Williams and began farming. As the first election in which the black voters could participate approached, the Klan became increasingly determined to terrorize the new electorate out of voting and changing the balance of power in the capitol and state legislature. Property-owner and former slaveholder, Rufus Bratton was a leader among the local Klansmen. For protection against Klan predations, Jim decided to organize and drill a militia, and although it was a desegregated body, no white men joined. It became known as the Black Militia.
Jim drilled the militiamen regularly, and during one drill, a very drunk white man – Mr. Mendenhall, a former owner of some of the militiamen, in fact – charged in among the men and punched one of them. Jim Williams arrested Mendenhall, hauled him into York City, and had him held there until another white man could pay his bail.
The white populace was infuriated. They were also terrified that black citizens were armed and prepared to defend themselves. So the Klan determined to eliminate all threats. One night, a large group of Klansmen rode from McConnells to Brattonsville, stopping at every house and cabin, threatening every citizen, and searching for arms in the homes of black people. At the Williams cabin, the Klansmen found Jim hiding under the floorboards, dragged him outside, and hanged him. Then they resumed their night ride of terror.
Members of the Black Militia got word very quickly and took out after the Klan group. When the militiamen found Jim’s body, they fetched the coroner to document the crime. Then they resumed their pursuit.
The Klan in up country South Carolina in the late 1860’s, early ‘70’s, carried out over 600 beatings, at least 11 murders, and numerous house burnings, to the point that in 1870 and 1871, the Federal government passed the Force Acts to prosecute Klan crimes, established martial law, suspended habeas corpus, and rounded up hundreds of white male citizens. Although few trials resulted, since there was official documentation of murder in Jim Williams’ case, one man did go to court. As a result, court records contain vivid details of what the Klansmen did that night and who was involved, and the story can be told today.
At the other plantations where the Slave Dwelling Project has stayed, the Reconstruction stories are most often about the conversion from slavery to share cropping, one condition being not much different from the other. They tell of former slaves who fled from plantations to new lives in a town or city where they could live by practicing their trades. Reconstruction stories also talk about the hard lives of the former plantation owners, their struggles to maintain their agricultural enterprises or their lapses into bankruptcy. Eyewitness accounts of night riding, pistol whippings, and hangings do not usually appear. Yet, just as it matters to preserve the places, the slave dwellings and the workshops, it matters to preserve the stories of courage, of determination to be a full voting citizen, of sacrifice for one’s beliefs, as one finds in the story of Jim Williams of Brattonsville.