John M. Coggeshall: Big T or little “t’s”: The Contingent Nature of History

Liberia, South Carolina by John M. CoggeshallToday we welcome a guest post from John M. Coggeshall, author of Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community, just published by UNC Press.

In 2007, while researching mountain culture in upstate South Carolina, anthropologist John M. Coggeshall stumbled upon the small community of Liberia in the Blue Ridge foothills. There he met Mable Owens Clarke and her family, the remaining members of a small African American community still living on land obtained immediately after the Civil War. This intimate history tells the story of five generations of the Owens family and their friends and neighbors, chronicling their struggles through slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the desegregation of the state. Through hours of interviews with Mable and her relatives, as well as friends and neighbors, Coggeshall presents an ethnographic history that allows members of a largely ignored community to speak and record their own history for the first time.

Liberia, South Carolina is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Big T or little “t’s”: The Contingent Nature of History

One of the challenges I face when presenting African American history to a primarily European-American audience is helping my listeners to differentiate between the traditional way of viewing history and a more holistic way of viewing history.  To many traditionalists, history is Truth (capital T); that is, there is only one “correct” way to relate and explain events.  Kings and presidents governed, decisions were made, policies enacted, wars won and lost, territories exchanged, censuses taken, and events reported by chroniclers or correspondents.

On the other hand, more recent views of historical (and anthropological) documentation focus on “truths” (in quotes and with a lower case t).  From this perspective, there are alternate ways of viewing and interpreting rulers, policies, victories, colonization, numbers, and observations.  Historical and cultural events are filtered through numerous lenses: gender, class, education, ethnicity, and time (to name a few).  Furthermore, not all documents are preserved, not all items counted, and not all observations unbiased.  Thus, the responsibility of the historian (and anthropologist) is to tell multiple stories, or to present alternate interpretations of stories, to provide a more nuanced, but more accurate, portrayal of the past.

In my new book, Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community, I present the anthropologically-grounded history of an African American freedom colony established by former slaves after the Civil War on land still owned by their descendants today.  In this book, I challenge the prevailing Truth of local white/black interaction by presenting primarily the black perspective on life under enslavement, during Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and desegregation.  By doing so, I challenge the prevailing white Truth that the Liberia community has peacefully coexisted with their white neighbors through the centuries, and that large numbers of blacks have no legitimate place in an area seen as traditionally a Euro-American landscape (the southern Appalachians).  By presenting multiple “truths,” I provide readers with a more accurate portrayal of life in South Carolina and in the American South more generally.  Moreover, readers are also made aware of the ability of a minority group to use myriad strategies to preserve their land, their identity, their independence, and their dignity for the past 150 years.

While I believe African American readers will appreciate the alternate perspective on South Carolina (and national) history, I suspect some of my local white audience may find their Truth challenged and their reality disturbed.  At the very least, I hope they find their minds opened and their perspectives changed.  As all readers will discover, the story of Liberia has a powerful message that will resonate with a wider national audience.  I believe it is a story worth telling.


John M. Coggeshall is professor of anthropology at Clemson University.