Friday, April 29, 2011

Charles Kuralt's America: South Carolina Low Country

"'John C. KILL-hoon,' that's what we call old John."

I was in the company of Alphonso Brown, band director at Rivers Middle School, black historian and speaker of Gullah, the rich black patois of the Carolina Low Country.

"KILL-hoon": John C. Calhoun asserted that slavery was a "positive good." He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism. All societies, Calhoun claimed, are ruled by an elite group which enjoys the fruits of the labor of a less-privileged group.

"White people remember history here, " Alphonso said. "Well, we remember it, too. He was KILL-hoon back then, and he'll be KILL-hoon a hundred years from now." Alphonso told me that as a statue, Calhoun used to be at ground level, but he was so regularly vandalized by black Charlestonians that the Daughters of the Confederacy had to put him up in the sky out of reach. Alphonso chuckled to think about it.

From Alphonso Brown, you get a little different perspective on Charleston history. Down at the Battery, gesturing toward Sullivan's Island in the harbor, he said, "That was our Ellis Island. Slaves from Africa spent two weeks in quarantine in the Sullivan's Island pesthouse. Then they were brought into the customs house and sold.

Alphonso on the Reconstruction years: "The freed slaves were promised forty acres and a mule. Some got twenty acres, and a mule. Some got twenty acres and no mule. Some got a mule and no acres. Most got nothing. Life was hard for everybody."

Alphonso on the sweetgrass basket sellers in their bonnets and long dresses: "They dress poor but they live rich. Those women make a lot of money. One of them has a husband who comes to collect her at the end of the day in a big Mercedes-Benz."

Alphonso on Low Country speech: "The linguist say Gullah is a dying language. Ain't nothing dyin' about Gullah. Just last night, I heard a woman say, 'Dat food cookin' smells' good mak' my jaw leak.' " He said this so fast and musically that he had to repeat it a couple times before I could understand it. He laughed, "You ain't necessarily supposed to understand it, "he said. Alphonso on black craftsmen: "Nearly everything you see around here was built by blacks - the houses, the walls, the streets and sidewalks - and not just by slaves, either. In 1850, there were thousands of free black artisans and business people in Charleston."

Or, as he put it in a guide he wrote to Gullah Charleston: "Dem cyaapentas, boat mekkah, cook, iyon wukkah, net mekkah, en pleny mo', is wu'k dat de Black people bin doin' ya fuh shree hunnad odd yea'…Roll unuh eye 'bout! Yenna ain't kno' who mek dese place ya? De Black han', dat who!"
South Carolina Blacksmith, Philip Simmons

At least one celebrated blacksmith is still around, Philip Simmons. "If you see a beautiful iron gate with meticulous curves, "Alphonso Brown said, "it was made by one of the master blacksmiths of two hundred years ago - or it was made by Philip Simmons." We went to see some Philip Simmons gates - a valentine gate he made for his church, St. John's for that is where he says his heart is; an egret gate at 2 St. Michael's Alley; a snake gate at 329 East Bay, once the house of Christopher Gadsden, who designed the Revolutionary War serpent flag with the legend "Don't Tread On Me."

Then we went to see Philip Simmons. He is a kindly man of eighty-two whose forge is in a ramshackle tin building behind his house on Blake Street. It doesn't look like the workshop of a National Treasure, but that's what Mr. Simmons is, officially certified by the Smithsonian Institution.

I asked him how he got started.

"When I was thirteen, "he said, "I used to stand in the door of the blacksmith shop and see the red-hot fire and see the sparks flying, and I liked that. The blacksmith let me help out, hold the horse while he was putting the shoe on, turn the hand forge, clean up the shop. After a while, he learned me names of everything. If he said, "boy, hand me that three-inch swage,' I had to know what he wanted. I learned that way.

"There were blacksmiths all over Charleston. I had many competitors. I was shoeing horses and fixing wagons, but people kept coming to tell me this company was going to trucks, that company was going to trucks, ho more horses, no more wagons, blacksmiths going out of business, see? I had to start studying what I was going to do." He turned to gates and fences and window guards.

Philip Simmons Heart Fence. Charleston, SC

"I've made more than two hundred gates and other ornamental iron works since then. Made gates for the Smithsonian in Washington and South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, and this Charleston Visitor Center down here. The doctor says don't do any heavy work, but I may make some more gates yet. You know who my competitor is now?"

He gave me a soft smile.

"Father time," he said.

There is an old saying among blacksmiths that the two ways a blacksmith can go to hell are by hammering cold iron and not charging enough. It appeared to me from his modest living conditions that Mr. Simmons hadn't charged enough

"Well, I put my children through school, "he said. "I gave money to my church. I have everything I want. And I am rich in friends."

After we said goodbye to Mr. Simmons and headed back downtown, Alphonso Brown said, "Some of these homeowners leave Charleston sometimes. I have noticed one thing. When they leave, they take their Philip Simmons gates with them.


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