By Angelina Ray Johnston and Robinson Wise
[This is the first of 4 installments of an essay that was originally published here.]
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white Southerners engaged in a frenzy of commemoration and monument building. In addition to honoring Confederate soldiers and the Lost Cause, they also sought to commemorate African American “mammies” and “faithful slaves.” Anxious to refute any suggestion that slavery had required the dehumanization of African Americans, white Southerners recalled their enslaved caretakers as willing “servants” who had been content, even grateful, for their lot in life. These commemorative gestures, which only hinted at the complex relationship that existed between slaveholders and slaves, served to legitimize white privilege and inform blacks of their “proper” place during the Jim Crow era. Simultaneously, some African Americans exploited the image of the “faithful slave” by pointedly reminding whites who railed against black criminality and fecklessness that blacks had been trustworthy in the past and, in fact, remained so. Even today, recent efforts to commemorate so-called “Black Confederates,” or slaves who allegedly fought on behalf of the Confederacy, demonstrate the continuing contests over acknowledging the historical complexities of American slavery.
One example of white commemoration of “faithful slaves” stands in the cemetery of the Hawfield Presbyterian Church in Mebane, North Carolina. Erected on June 4, 1922, the monument is a roughly-cut, rectangular stone with a bronze plaque. It, along with two other plaques, were donated in honor of the founders of the church, the former and present pastors of the church, as well as the “faithful slaves” who are buried in the church cemetery. The donors of the monument were members of the family of Stephen A.White, a businessman, prominent local politician, and an elder of the church.
A plaque on the stone reads as follows: IN MEMORY OF / THE FAITHFUL SLAVES / MANY OF WHOM WERE MEMBERS OF / HAWFIELDS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH / AND ARE BURIED IN THIS CEMETERY / “BE THOU FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH AND I / WILL GIVE THEE A CROWN OF LIFE” REV. 2:10 / THIS TABLET IS PRESENTED BY THE FAMILY OF STEPHEN ALEXANDER WHITE / AND DEDICATED BY THE HAWFIELDS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH / 1908 – 1922
This Biblical passage and the monument’s location are telling. The passage presumably was selected to explicitly compare the slaves’ servitude to devout Christians’ obedience to God, who will “give thee the crown of life.” The passage renders the condition of servitude in a manner that whites, who knew of slavery only from the vantage of slave masters, presumably found both acceptable and compelling. Simultaneously, it underscored that faithfulness to masters, as to God, was both a necessity and an obligation. The apparent intent of the inscription is to suggest that just as God gives life to his faithful followers, so too slave masters gave life to their loyal slaves. And while the plaque specifically commemorated former slaves who had been members of the Hawfields Presbyterian Church, no names of any of the “faithful slaves” were included on it. Consequently, the monument memorializes them in the abstract, and these nameless slaves are honored in the context of a segregated church and a segregated cemetery. The monument, in sum, is a memorial to the slaves’ condition vis a vis their white masters rather than to them as individuals.1
1. For more on “Faithful Slave” monuments, see Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 155-161.