John M. Coggeshall: “Can you change history? Yes and no.”

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.


“Can you change history?  Yes and no.”

“You can’t change history,” some folks shout at others, often (today) over the impending removal of Confederate monuments.  While it is certainly true that you can’t change the fact that some states withdrew from the Union in 1861, you can change the understanding of the reasons for secession and the memorializing of those who did.

This re-conceptualization of history is a major theme of my new book, Liberia, South Carolina: an African American Appalachia Community.  The book presents an oral history of an enclave of freed black slaves who founded a community called Liberia in 1865 in upper Pickens County, South Carolina.  Through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and the racial backlash of today, the community has persisted, supported in part by monthly fish fries at Soapstone Baptist Church.

The book does not “change” the fact that Liberia’s residents and their surrounding white neighbors interacted with each other for over a century.  What the book does offer is a “counter-memory,” another way of viewing the story of this community and its relationship with its neighbors.  For example, local histories of the area, written by white local historians, describe the peaceful and friendly relationship between Liberia and surrounding white neighbors, even during the Jim Crow era.  However, oral interviews with local black residents present a different version of that reality, documenting instances of white murders of blacks, armed attacks on and thefts of black property, physical assaults to black people, and verbal harassment toward blacks.

Whether these incidents were “infrequent” or “common” is less important than how those who have been terrorized perceive these threats to be.  After all, the story of one actual lynching would remain in oral tradition for decades afterward, causing merely the utterance of a verbal threat by a white to a black to remind that victim of every story he or she had heard from every community member for decades.  Such stories of terror, and actual terrorist actions, created a “culture of terror,” or a shadow of caution and stress, under which every black person was forced to live for generations in the white-dominated South.  One could argue that culture of terror persists today as well.

Thus, while my book does not “change” the history of Pickens County, the state of South Carolina, or the southern United States, it does offer a counter-memory, or a new way of looking at historical events, to provide a more complete picture of our nation’s past – and a more empathetic understanding of our present.

By including the voices of all groups in our nation’s history, and especially those of strong black women from the Liberia Community, my book – and oral historians – allow for greater inclusivity, fairer representation, and equality of all voices in our histories.  History may not be changed, but it can be better understood.


John M. Coggeshall is professor of anthropology at Clemson University.  You can read his earlier UNC Press Blog post here.