A Different World

Granddaughter of prominent South Carolina history book author, Confederate descendent walks a different path

This blog post from June began an exchange with Felicia Furman, the granddaughter of a prominent author of South Carolina history.

I write about Furman’s background and the first half of the exchange in this column: “Prominent South Carolina public schools history book author believed black people loved being called ‘darkies’”

Here’s the second half:

Bailey: Do others in your family feel the way you do?

Furman: My family realizes that the books were racist and they are not proud that our ancestors were slave owners. It’s simply a fact. However, they are less vocal than I am about racism and reconciliation. I chose a different path. In 1993, I began a family history project that turned into the PBS film “Shared History.”

During that time, my parents and I started a scholarship fund for the descendants of the enslaved people at the plantation we owned. It’s called Woodlands and is in Bamberg County. We still own part of the land that comprised the plantation, which includes a two story house - as my grandmother said, the ruins of what Sherman left behind - and the white and black graveyards. Several families of freedmen stayed on the place after the Civil War so I did genealogies of each of the families that I could trace back to slavery at Woodlands so young people could prove their connection. Now I work with an organization called Coming to the Table, whose members include the descendants of enslaved people and slave owners.

Bailey: Your family's history can be traced back to fighting for the South in the Civil War. Is it possible to legitimately separate the South's reason for going into the war from revering your ancestor's individual bravery and sacrifice? Why or why not?

Furman: We didn’t hear stories about our ancestor fighting in the Civil War. But my grandmother told a story about an enslaved person named Jupiter who went with my great-grandfather to the battle lines. He was quoted as saying to my great grandfather, “You got to be brave, but not too brave.”

I don’t think you can separate the South’s reason for going into the war from revering your ancestor’s participation. I think you can only acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice of any young person in a battle. You have to accept your ancestors for who they were, the good and the bad.

I would say revere is too strong a word for how my family feels about our ancestor fighting in the Civil War. His father, William Gilmore Simms, was the focus of the family’s attention. He was a writer and spoke out strongly in favor of slavery. My grandmother published his letters in nine volumes.

Bailey: Tell me a bit more about your great-grandfather and the role he played in the war, and before the war?

Furman: My great-grandfather was 18 when he entered the war. There is very little we know about his role in the war or his childhood.

Bailey: What effect has the flying of the Confederate flag had on this state for the past half century?

Furman: The flag is a symbol of hatred whether white people believe it or not. It’s flown to show the perceived superiority of whites, so it’s a slap in the face of African-Americans.

Bailey: How do you think the events of this past week - a massacre in a black church, followed by a complete about-face by top legislators about the Confederate flag - will ultimately play out? Will this be a momentary change, with a shift back to things as they were once the emotion dies down? Or does this have the making of lasting change that matters?

Furman: I think the massacre and the removal of the flag will have lasting change. I think for a certain segment of the population, the unconscious whites, it will be a wakeup call. Important leaders are supporting its removal. They will pay attention to that. For the demonic and vile of the population, it may send them further underground, but there will always be another who will play out his beliefs pushed on by mental illness. The only good thing that has come out of this is that another conversation has been started. Maybe it’s just another conversation that goes nowhere, but I think it will have impact on those uncommitted people in a choice to face the racism that continues to harm our country.

Bailey: You are in Colorado. How do folks there view South Carolina and the flag? Do you think that will change if it actually is removed?

Furman: My associates in Colorado think South Carolina is a joke. However, they are intrigued by the mythologies of the Old South. I don’t think taking down the flag will cause any change of feeling in Colorado.

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