My experience has contradicted the notion that Southerners kept few records. Like most agricultural people, black and white Southerners saved everything. Historical records are just hard to find, and have often been preserved in unusual ways. I discovered several volumes of tax records being used to support boards as shelves in a country store.
With a feeling of reverence for the past and family, black and white Southerners have preserved personal documents that link the past to their own recollections and stories. I have examined manuscript collections; plantation, church, and masonic records; letters; diaries; newspapers; and family Bibles. No doubt these are all biased, but as Francis Butler Simkins stated,
during my childhood here at Edgefield the family history was preserved in a few relics, in the tales of the elders, and in a fat scrapbook. We read this book as often as we did our Shakespeare and our Bible. Some would say that this volume should not have been believed; that it was filled with Victorian fustian gleaned from the reminiscences with which the fifty-odd newspapers of South Carolina were loaded during the fifty years following the fall of the Confederacy. A thousand other families in the state possessed similar books. But such critical disillusionment never entered my mind until, as a young man, I had the experience of being contaminated by the skepticism of Columbia University. Since then the sentimentality or the wisdom of mature years has prompted me to recover faith in the ancestors.1
After having enjoyed many of these scrapbooks, I see why Simkins and the elite exalted their forebears. But the records of other black and white Southerners are no less valuable and no more suspect than the records of the elite, which have generally determined the outlines of history books. Southern common folk who persevered left a proud history. Some left scrapbooks, most passed on family Bibles, and all created oral family traditions. Especially useful were such sources as the letters to the American Colonization Society from Edgefield blacks who wanted to emigrate and the letters from poor, yeomen, and middle-class whites and blacks in Edgefield to governors of South Carolina. Often intimate and urgent, these records counterbalance elite versions of particular events, such as Reconstruction. The same is true of investigative reports, depositions, and reports of local commissioners.
I have learned much from those who have opened their homes and shared their lives
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Publication information: Book title: In My Father's House Are Many Mansions:Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Contributors: Orville Vernon Burton - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 1985. Page number: 325.
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