Walter Rhett

History’s Invisible Veil

Lord, gave them better,” goes the powerful prayer of a South Carolina woman, recorded on Hilton Head, South Carolina in the 1930s by linguist Lorenzo Turner and found in the Library of Congress archives. Lost in the broad annals of American slavery and its aftermath are the many prayers and individual acts of courage whose invisible silence is used today to shut down the struggle for better. Ann Romney is one absorbed by this silence. She can not clearly articulate the difference between wealth and privilege, and poverty and the dependency and submission demanded of the poor. She does not know their prayer. Her incoherent failure of meaning, her mangled syntax; her non-existent sense of justice shows her lack of experience with and isolation from mainstream lives. That absence of reference belies her struggles to establish an ethic of knowledge about critical aspects of women’s lives.

One commenter explained:

Ann Romney’s choice to stay at home is not the same kind of choice that women of ordinary means have to make. For them, the choice is often a balancing act between being involved in their children’s lives or going out and earning enough money to survive. Hilary Rosen meant that Ann Romney didn’t have to face that kind of choice. Ann Romney will never have to worry about paying for medical care, food, clothing, and tuition. She’ll never have to explain to her kids why they can’t have the things that other kids have. When Ann Romney says that raising five boys was work, many mothers will say, yes it is. Try doing it on a part-time salary at Wal-Mart with no health benefits. It’s a disgrace that the media failed to find the real story in Rosen’s comment, the one in which people of extraordinary wealth are unlikely to fully understand the plight of the poor and the middle class. The wealthy confuse being poor with being broke, considering it a temporary situation that will be resolved when the trust fund kicks in.

Women are a majority but still a marginalized population under attack. Trying to be authentic, Ann Romney authors confusion.

That old South Carolina woman knew there was little to love about being poor or field work, yet she offered a prayer bright with hope. She doesn’t want to fit in, doesn’t have to pretend to anyone what living has taught her and her three word prayer rises far beyond petition. It is a beatific prayer. In her full submission, she is directing God, commanding his will for her highest purpose. It is her commandment to him, and she fully expects him to follow. Her prayer is rooted in the calling of their same shared love; lay the burdens down: give them better.

Ann Romney fumbles. But the elder prays and addresses the wrongs she witnessed and knows, the needs she see and feels, the status and opportunities of the children that shall come after her and the world they make and find.

Would Ann Romney speak these simple, clear words to her husband, her life partner who seeks our nation’s highest position of service? Is there a higher, more succinct calling then these three words the old woman places before God? Is there any doubt about what she means?

Powerful clarity takes courage. Courage rises with the same ease as prayer when it is elevates not desire but love. In the dark era of slavery, couples whose love was a light of courage influenced the nation’s course and gave us better. The women in these families faced more than ridicule or mockery. Daily they walked in circumstances a step away from death. They raised children whose education was illegal and whose bodies were sold. They loved their god but mostly hated their choices, but found the courage to act. They acted with the courage to love.

Nancy Weston’s prayers for the nation and her children are unknown, her words in time’s invisible veil. She was a Charleston seamstress, an enslaved woman; she worked independently to support herself and lived in a small house on St. Philip Street. She was member of a noted family of craft and trades workers tied to planter Plowden Weston; hers was a family of blended European, African, and native American descent who were slave and free. She began a relationship with a prominent young lawyer after the death of his wife. His father was the Chief Justice of the State’s Supreme Court and a slaveholder with 14 children. Two of the children, two sisters, were later famous abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Their brother, Henry Grimke, was smitten with Nancy Weston, a slave.

As had his sisters before, he and Nancy soon left the city, but love drove him more than the politics of freedom. He resigned his law practice and moved her with him to his rice plantation, Cane Acres, in the country; built Nancy a house, and fathered her three sons. Small intimate details of their relationship survive in his letters to his older adult children back in Charleston, whose mother Nancy had nursed through illness.

At Cane Acres, Nancy carried authority. She overruled the plantation’s overseer, forbidding him to work slaves in the fields on Sunday and bring embarrassment to the family for violating the Sabbath; Henry backed her decision. She attacked Henry once in a domestic dispute and knocked him down. Mainly she tended her chickens and flowers. Her oldest child, Archibald, was given Henry as his middle name. But fate offered its twist; Henry the father died suddenly when the boys were young.

Given a small pension, Nancy returned to Charleston, educated the boys, and often made them recite aloud long passages as she listened. Just before the Civil War began, one of the older siblings claimed the brothers as his property, ignoring Nancy’s assertion not to, as they were his brothers. One ran away and one was purchased by a naval officer stationed in Charleston as a body servant. (One, the youngest, has been lost to time.)

After the war, two brothers reunited and enrolled in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Notice in a Boston paper of a Grimke winning an oratorical contest caught the eye of their aunt. On the strength of the last name, she wrote to him, offering her praise, asking if he were one of the children of their family’s servants. He wrote back informing her, he and his brother were her nephews. “Restore the Grimke name,” she urged.

Archibald Henry Grimke went to Harvard Law (its second black graduate, in 1874!), long before Mitt Romney showed up, knowing nothing of the love and courage that trumped privilege and wealth to bring about this historic step. Archibald was a founder of the NAACP, served as president of the Washington, DC chapter, won the organization prestigious Springarn award. He vigorously opposed Woodrow Wilson’s policy instituting racial segregation in the federal government, fought to maintain voting rights, served as a US consul.

His brother, Francis James Grimke went to Princeton Seminary and ministered the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC for 60 years. He was a trustee of Howard University, and an outspoken voice for justice. His wife, Charlotte Forten, taught school in Port Royal, (Hilton Head) SC during the civil war and was the granddaughter of a wealthy, ship building and sail making Philadelphia family. Her grandfather, James Forten, served as a power boy in the Revolutionary War on board a patriot naval ship.

Washington, DC was also home to another son of Charleston, Francis Cordozo, born to an free mother and Jewish father. Francis, educated at Scotland’s Glasgow University; a Congregational minister in Conneticut, returned to become the founding principal of Charleston’s Avery Institute, a private, mission supported training school of high standards for black teachers. He became the first black to win election to statewide office in the US, elected as South Carolina’s Secretary of State in 1868 and its state treasurer in 1872. A Washington, DC high school where he was later principal is named for him. His brother, Thomas Cardozo, was elected Superintendent of Education in Mississippi in 1871 and is credited as the father of free universal education in Mississippi for all students, black and white.


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