Have you ever been to a black funeral?" Ernest Parks asks me. We're standing on the bottom floor of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge on Sol Legare (that's pronounced "sawl la-gree") Road, surrounded by 20th-century artifacts in various stages of disrepair: a graying snare drum with a torn drumhead, banged-up 100-year-old tables, a woodstove with fancy silver trimmings. Except for the woodstove, which is a misfit from a family in Rhode Island, everything in the room came from the yards and basements and attics of Parks' neighbors on Sol Legare Island. They're part of the collection of the Seashore Farmers' Lodge Museum, which celebrates the 150-year-old Sol Legare community and the building that they've used for everything from neighborhood meetings to school to church over the last 100 years. Funerals, too.
Right now, we're standing where the coffins would have lain in state. I've only ever been to one funeral, and it wasn't a black one, I tell him. "Well, that's a ritual in and of itself — it's something to see," he continues. "But we as African Americans, we have a ritual where we would take the youngest child of the family and we would pass the youngest child over the coffin of the dead ... It's supposed to give you wisdom, supposed to keep off evil spirits, help you not to be scared," he says. "In my case it was me being passed over my grandfather. I didn't know that story until [four years ago], and my older brother, who is now 70, he told me that I was the child of the family that they passed over."
It's fitting somehow that now, more than 50 years later, he's become the unofficial guardian of his community's history.
Freed slaves settled Sol Legare, and their descendants never left
Sol Legare doesn't look like much at first glance. It's a small, coastal community, sitting right on the marsh across from Folly Island. The homes are humble and colorful, mostly one-story, and they run the gamut from charmingly old-fashioned to falling to pieces. The homes, though, aren't the unique thing about this neighborhood; instead, it's the people inside them, most of whom can trace their families back five, six, seven generations. The original settlers of Sol Legare were freed slaves who came to the island in the late 1800s to farm and fish. The community they created embodied the very opposite of slavery. It was autonomous, free, and mutually supportive. The symbol of all that is the Seashore Farmers Lodge, a circa 1915 community center which, thanks to concerned local residents and the help of an exceptionally dedicated genealogist, was recently transformed from a decrepit, hurricane-devastated building to a living museum. "Seashore embodies freedom," Parks says. "We would plant our seeds, farm the land, and we would take it and sell it down on the market. For the longest time, we never worked for anybody but ourselves."
Parks also sits on the board of the Friends of McLeod Plantation, which gives him an added perspective on his work at the Lodge. "They [McLeod Plantation's owners] were slaveowners, slaveholders, and they kept us in bondage, but on the flip side of the coin is the Seashore Farmers Lodge. It's autonomy, freedom. Doing our own thing. We paid our dues in pennies, literally pennies, and we took care of ourselves just the best we knew how."
Parks is a fifth-generation resident of Sol Legare and the current curator of the Lodge. A robust 57, Parks exudes generosity and warmth, as well as a sincere passion for the history that he's come to steward. In other words, he seems born for the job. Parks grew up here on the island, but left to go to college in Tennessee when he was 18 and didn't move back until about eight years ago. On his return, he moved into his grandfather's house just down the road from the Lodge. At that point, the building was in terrible condition. Half of the roof had caved in, the foundation was sinking, and it was in danger of collapsing. "I used to see this building, and I'd say, Ernest, that's going to be a travesty if I sit here and let this building cave in," he says. He points to an old photo of the building, where the sides are shored up by long lengths of wood. "We had to put stilts on her!"
The two-story building had been the meeting place for members of the Seashore Farmers Lodge, a neighborhood organization that served as a kind of insurance policy for its members beginning in the late 1800s. "We couldn't get insurance from the white guys, so how do we support ourselves? You join the lodge, you pay your dues," Parks says. "Then if something happens, we'll take care of you. Someone in the family needs plants, crops, we can help with the seeds. Somebody in your family dies, we help with the burial. You need help in any kind of way, you need help with your taxes, the Lodge does that for them."
And the physical building, with its countless uses, was just as instrumental to nurturing Sol Legare's strong sense of community. It was a gathering place that held the neighborhood together. "We would be called to the meeting via the drum," Parks says. "You hear the drum, it means come to the hall, something was going on ... Up till the '60s, only a couple of people had telephones. On the northern part of the neighborhood, someone had a phone, and on the southern part someone had a phone. So if you were in the northern part, that was your phone number. There could be a hundred people in the neighborhood, but that was your phone number. It made a tight-knit family. That's how the neighborhood grew, that's how we became tight. 'Cause once you were out here on James Island, you were pretty much out here."
So when the lodge finally became unusable after being hit by Hugo in 1989, Sol Legare lost much more than just a building.
Breaking through the brick wall of bondage — with paper
Toni Carrier is a genealogist who heads Lowcountry Africana, a genealogical research project focusing on African-American history in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and northeastern Florida. Funded by the Magnolia Plantation Foundation, the organization focuses on records that detail black history, primarily between 1860 and 1900. Because of the way enslaved people were recorded before slavery ended — as property, rather than as people — genealogists focusing in this area, and African Americans who are looking for their enslaved ancestors, have a specific set of challenges to overcome when digging back through time. "It is really difficult in African-American genealogy research to go back past the 1870s, and that's because before the 1870 census African Americans were not listed with last names on the census records. They were just listed by age and gender," Carrier says. "So many researchers get back to 1870, and then they hit this brick wall." Further complicating matters is the fact that fewer than 20 percent of freed families took the last name of their slaveholding family — for obvious reasons — so surnames are not necessarily a reliable indicator of which family might have had the records one is looking for.
Lowcountry Africana is trying to break down that brick wall, locating and digitizing records that help fill in the gap. "There are a variety of records that help," Carrier says. "For instance, the 1869 census in South Carolina. Also, in 1868 many African-American men registered to vote, so right away you have the census and voter registration."
But if you're just a regular Joe trying to learn about your ancestors, how would you know to look for those documents? Even if you did, deciphering them could be a whole other matter. That, Carrier says, is Lowcountry Africana's second goal. "Our primary goal is to get the records out there [on our website] ... and then to develop tutorials so that people will know what to do with the resources and how to apply them to their family research." The Lowcountry Africana website has a page devoted to "The 1870 Brick Wall," with links to documents that definitively connect former slaves to slaveholding families, so that present family members can trace their roots back to the last slaveholding family and, possibly, further. "If you are successful in taking your history back before 1870, you may discover whether they were enslaved or whether they were free," Carrier says. That distinction is an important one for genealogical detective work, she says, because "there are records that are helpful in searching for free African-American ancestors, and there is a rich record set for researching African-American slave ancestors."
One of those record sets was made digitally available to the public only recently, through a collaboration between Lowcountry Africana, the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and the website Fold3. It's a massive collection of bills of sale as well as a state inventory for enslaved families in Charleston. As stomach-turning as it is to see a bill of sale for a human being, the collection is an important one for family researchers. "We recruited volunteers to manage data from those records, with all the names and places and dates, to make them searchable. Those records are really significant. It's probably 25,000 pages, free. That's the best part," Carrier says.
But genealogy isn't just about people who are long dead. It's easy to think of it as a lifeless kind of undertaking: you sift through paper or digital records, deciphering hundred-year-old handwriting, looking for written clues to your family history. However, a big part of constructing any genealogy is talking to your living family members, taking down their oral history. "Family oral history is so important to research. When people are starting their genealogical research, there are two things that are really helpful, to help get a good start. The first one is to bring down that shoebox of family papers and family photographs," Carrier says. "The second thing is to interview your family members, and you should interview everyone who's up for it because everyone has a different memory." Without the oral history, you may have the names — and if you're lucky, some of the stories — of ancestors whom you never met, but you're missing that vital link between you and them. And without that link to the present, much of the richness of the experience of tracking family history is lost.
Out on Sol Legare, Parks knows that from experience. He's interested not in just the story of his own family, but in the story of the greater community. Spend any amount of time with him, and you'll see just how much he cares about Sol Legare's history. "This history is amazing," he says. "I tell people, I wasn't privy to my history. I was privy to white American history. I grew up in the '60s, the violent, turbulent '60s. They didn't teach us a lot about [African-American] history." He's certainly making up for it now. Just like Carrier, he's a strong believer in the importance of oral history. "African-American neighborhoods, oral history is what we do," he says. "I find myself now talking to the elders. I'm putting a tape on and letting it run. Let them tell me. Straight from the horse's mouth. You can't get more truth than that."
Reviving the link between the past and the present
In 2009, Parks' passion for the Lodge found a match in Corie Hipp, who at the time worked for a company that was helping renovate the building for the reality TV show Flip This House. Hipp fell in love with the project and the community that it represented. "[Sol Legare] is all descendants of the original settlers, for the most part ... that's what makes it so special," she says. "It's so unique." She took on a public relations and grant-writing role for the Seashore Farmers Lodge, which is now a registered 501(c)3, and that's how she came across Lowcountry Africana. "Because of this museum and my involvement with Ernest, we had to do research to write grants and to create the museum." Hipp stumbled upon Lowcountry Africana online, and soon Carrier was sending her incredible finds related to the history of Sol Legare. "Toni provided all these papers that you wouldn't even think existed. I don't think a lot of people realize she is there with this wealth of information," Hipp says. Carrier provided Parks and Hipp with agricultural schedules from 1870 that proved that families on Sol Legare had indeed settled there soon after Emancipation. "To actually have the hard copy that this person did settle Sol Legare, and this is where he came from, and to see the signatures ... it's incredible," says Hipp. Those documents also helped them win grants and get on the radar of preservation organizations, both local and national. To date, the Lodge has won five preservation awards, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While that recognition is a source of great pride, Carrier's genealogical work helped develop something much more important, according to Parks. The Lodge is once again a living building, bringing together the community that it was built for 100 years ago. It started on day one with the renovation process, says Parks, and has only continued. "We had a family day where people came in [to help], all these people — it was such a momentous day for me, personally, because we had all walks of life come in and help renovate the lodge."
The Lodge has continued to unify the community in many ways, from the museum collection of neighborhood heirlooms and photographs to the concerts, storytelling events, and family days that Parks has organized on the grounds. There have even been a couple of Civil War reenactments — Parks is a reenactor with the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was one of the first sanctioned African-American regiments in the Union Army. The 54th fought the Battle of Sol Legare on the island in 1863, two days before they engaged in the Battery Wagner battle famously depicted in the film Glory. Parks' idea is to continue growing the Lodge's social and educational offerings, bringing in more and more people to learn about the community.
The Lodge is now serving as one of those links between the past and present, offering a tangible symbol of why genealogy and local history matter. Although the records that people like Carrier work with can look pretty boring to the average person, they carry tremendous weight. "These records look like a list of names, but what they actually are, or what they can help you develop, is a story of your ancestors' life," Carrier says.
That's what Parks is working toward at the Seashore Farmers' Lodge, heirloom by heirloom, memory by memory. He's piecing together the stories of Sol Legare's past, just as he's helping to weave the story of its future. It's a pretty big responsibility, but he doesn't seem to mind. "It's not work," he says. "Especially when it's for the neighborhood, and you have all the elders saying we're trusting you to carry this on and the young kids, I'm looking at them saying OK, this is what we're leaving for you to carry on."
Back in the museum, Parks shows me a recently acquired diorama commemorating the Battery Wagner attack. The piece was previously housed in the Statue of Liberty, and it's one of the museum items that he's most proud of. 'This was designed by the Department of the Interior for the Statue of Liberty in 1970," he says. "From 1970 to 1990 it was in the Statue. From 1990 to 2009 it was at Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, and they were bringing another exhibit in and they want to know who wants it, and if you do, tell us why by writing an essay. Well, I wrote that essay, and I told them why." Obviously, he won. When he goes on to talk about why he does what he does, I have no trouble seeing why the diorama is here, and not somewhere else. "It's kind of my job now to spew this history out, because it's America's history, not just mine. I want to give it to everyone who'll listen. I want to give it to them."
And he's the kind of person who will make you want to listen.