Submitted by Emily Molina – SHMA Liaison to the Friends of the Steilacoom Library.
Highly esteemed author and former Purdue University History professor joined the Steilacoom Historical Museum on MLK Jr.’s birthday to discuss the basis for his latest book: Yuletide in Dixie.
May argues that in the post-Civil War era, slavery was defended even more so and romanticized through the memoirs, novels, and poems of white slave owners. This detail is particularly prominent in references to Christmas time, and the endless joy and kinship that supposedly existed between masters and slaves.
Numerous published accounts refer to the slave Christmas experience as a festive occasion. Full of presents offered gratuitously by masters and mistresses. A magical period of time, over a week or more, spent in celebration. Immense holiday feasts shared by all. Everyone dressed to the nines, with fireworks, music, and revelry between slaves and masters.
On the contrary. May debates that scores of publishings have subtlety sustained racism through the years, and continued to cultivate stereotypes.
In his book, May deconstructs the myths of Christmas grandeur.
Charles Ball, an African-American enslaved in Maryland wrote that during the Christmas season ‘they went to work as usual.’ Marilda Perry documented that, ‘it meant nothing more than any other day.’ Former governor of South Carolina, and planter, James Hammond in his own memoirs refers to ‘a loss of crops, and therefore, no holiday festivities.’
Although certainly there were slave masters that had celebrations and gave gifts, May points to the misleading impression about the quality of gifts given. In the journal of Thomas Chaplin, a cotton planter, he refers to having bestowed turnips upon his slaves, although he ‘wished they were working.’
Many Southern narratives ignore the fact that there were sadistic masters that continued to force demeaning acts on slaves during Christmas time. Frederick Douglas, former slave and abolitionist, complained that slaves were forced drink alcohol. They were used for entertainment in wrestling matches. Controlling them in a way, as many were afraid of a black rebellion. “This keeps slaves from running away during a time of less supervision,” May remarked.
Whippings still took place. One master referred to putting a disobedient slave atop a scaffolding on display as punishment. Some masters bought and sold slaves, often separating them from their families, and even giving them away as gifts.
Another factor taking place in early January was that some slaves were rented out during surplus or shortages. They were usually rented out alone, for up to one year, to places like coal mines, railroads, and even the horse jockeying trade. They would come back during the yuletide season.
In some of the very same romanticized Old South publishings, one can find out precisely how poorly many slaves were treated by their master’s own accounts. Ironically, news reports of the day indicate a high number of slaves that chose to run away during Christmas time. May argues, “If it was so great, why run away at the time of year when they are treated the best?”
This FREE event was sponsored by the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association at the Steilacoom Historical Museum, 1801 Rainier Street.