DI library program spotlights the slave experience in the Lowcountry
Rich Dorval sits in front of a small group at the Daniel Island Library. The Middleton Place volunteer and history fanatic begins his presentation, titled “The Slave Experience in the South Carolina Lowcountry,” with a picture of a large body of people. He explains that this was a 2006 reunion of descendants of plantation owners and enslaved workers.
“We’re still in such a dire time of racism and race issues and ‘how do we make society heal,’ ‘how do we bring people back together,’” Dorval tells those gathered for the Feb. 14 program, commenting on the intent behind the reunion.
The Daniel Island Library’s latest afternoon history lecture saw Dorval discussing popular interpretations of slavery juxtaposed with the blunt truth of its existence as an institution. He drives that point home in one of his first comments.
“When we go back to things like Gone with the Wind—when you see movies like that, they show a really romanticized version of the south,” Dorval states. “They show Mammy coming to Miss Scarlett and everybody’s happy and smiling and happy and enthusiastic. That’s not to say that there weren’t situations that may have mimicked that a little bit, but that’s probably not the way it was, and that’s certainly not the way it was in most cases.”
In contrast, he explains the diabolical methods used to capture and maintain enslaved labor.
“Africa had a lot of different tribes. The tribes that ended up being taken as enslaved people, those were your herders, your gatherers, your farmers. There were a number of African tribes that had armies, that had cavalries, that were fighting people.”
“They wanted to get the people that were easier to break,” he adds.
Dorval shows a picture of the infamous Middle Passage, where millions of enslaved Africans were transported to the rest of the world.
“They were packed in like absolute sardines,” he says. “It was acceptable for a captain to lose between 10 and 15 percent of the enslaved people on his ship.”
As the presentation continues, Dorval explains the economic impact that institutionalized slavery had on Charleston and the U.S.
“The slave industry was so powerful in terms of money and helping nations develop empires,” he says. “There’s no way the United States of America went from being a Colonial area inhabited by aborigine Indians and then all of a sudden by 1914 becoming a world power… That kind of power and growth and development was only made possible with the enforced labor of the enslaved people.”
“There’s no shortage of plantations in the Lowcountry,” he says, while showing a map of the area.
Because of this, enslaved labor was used for everything from field work, like rice cultivation, to skilled labor, like blacksmithing and carriage driving.
The broad nature and byzantine history of the topic of slavery in America makes recounting everything stated in Dorval’s extensive presentation impossible. But, circling back to the beginning is a fitting way to end his knowledgeable recap. Near the front of his presentation, Dorval states that “slavery, itself, was a topic that was politely not discussed. It brought embarrassment to some and it brought shame to others.”
When hearing the truth of enslavement in America, it’s hard not to wonder if true healing could have happened sooner if that racial dialogue was opened earlier.