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‘Loyal Slave’ Monuments Tell a Racist Lie About American History

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As America’s racist historical myths go, the loyal black slave is one of the most enduring, destructive, and tightly held. Emerging from the white Southern racial imagination in the 1830s, the faithful slave personified slave owners’ defensiveness against a growing abolitionist movement and its condemnations of slavery, and slaveholders, as evil and immoral. The loyal-slave trope insisted that enslaved blacks labored for their enslavers not out of self-preservation and deeply instilled fear, but as an expression of love, fidelity, and devotion. After the Civil War ended in their humiliating defeat, white Southerners attempted to retroactively justify the Confederacy with the “Lost Cause” ideology, an ahistorical narrative that further reimagined the Old South as filled with happy enslaved blacks. The loyal slave became a stock character in slavery apologia from Gone with the Wind to pancake-mix ad campaigns to—perhaps less famously—a little-known subgenre of Confederate monuments. Nearly all of those overtly racist memorials still stand in sites around the South.

As with Confederate monuments generally, loyal-slave markers communicated not only the white South’s nostalgia for a counterfeit version of what once was, but also its belief in what should have been. Constructed not during slavery but between the 1900s and 1930s, like nearly all Confederate monuments, loyal-slave markers served as the visible component of an anti-black backlash against black civil-rights gains. In the face of African-American empowerment struggles, loyal-slave monuments telegraphed the idea that slavery had been the natural state of things. Faithful-slave markers also warned black folks working to overturn the racial-caste system in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that they risked the same brutal violence that had kept racial order during slavery. In fact, black defiance had manifested in 250 slave uprisings, more than 100,000 escapes via the Underground Railroad, and thousands more escaped slaves’ joining the Union Army before slavery was abolished in 1865.

Confederate apologists erected loyal-slave monuments to blot out that evidence of black rebellion. “They memorialized a narrative that undercut the myriad ways that African Americans resisted,” says Tera Hunter, a professor of American history and African-American studies at Princeton University. “It was a source of embarrassment for slaveholders that they had to resort to the use of brute force to keep enslaved people in line, because if they were actually content, why would there be a need for corporal punishment? Loyal-slave stories and monuments hid that history. They helped soothe the consciousness of those people who believed slavery was a legitimate system, and absolved the culpability of those who participated in and benefited from the system of slavery. But the most damaging work the myth did was to create a stereotype of African-American people as content with their conditions—and therefore complicit in their own bondage. That’s one of many reasons we don’t see Confederate monuments to Nat Turner’s revolt or other major rebellions that happened.”

One of the oldest loyal-slave monuments was erected in 1895 in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and today stands in the appropriately named Confederate Park. Two opposing sides of the 13-foot-tall marble monument feature bas-relief carvings depicting enslaved blacks, including a “mammy” figure cradling a white baby and a black man cutting wheat. The inscription on one panel praises the “faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity [and] guarded our defenseless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our ‘Confederate States of America.’” The most famed speaker at the monument’s 1896 unveiling was Polk Miller, a white defender of slavery who often performed black music under the stage name “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro.” In their exhaustive history of Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle note that Miller’s remarks “pitted what he called the ‘uppity,’ turn-of-the-century African American against the ‘negro of the good old days gone-by,’ suggesting emancipation had been an unfortunate development.”

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