Tuesday, June 7, 2011


And Tom and I Read a Book

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the start of the bloody Civil War that took the lives of over 650,000 Americans.  Civil War anniversary celebrations are being held throughout the South and across the nation.  A Grand Secession Ball was staged in Charleston.

In this sesquicentennial year, April 12, 2011 was a particularly significant day here in South Carolina. Ft. Sumter was fired upon to signal the beginning of the Civil War one hundred fifty years ago. On that day one hundred years later, on April 12, 1962, the Confederate flag first went up on the Statehouse dome during the centennial observances of the Civil War and in defiance of the growing civil rights movement.  The date was observed across the state in many different ways. School children toured historic sites. Academicians pontificated about the significance of various aspects of the War of Northern Aggression.  Civil War re-enactors reveled in the glory of the goriest war in history with battle reenactments and camaraderie around their campfires. Some people fired cannons. Some lit fireworks.  Tom and I read a book!

  Fraternities and sororities, social justice groups, politicians, theater people, high school and college English classes, churches, Girl Scout troops and Tom and I were asked to get involved in an Uncle Tom's Cabin Reading Marathon.We gathered all through the day at the Historic Modjeska Monteith Simkins House to take 10 minute shifts reading the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The organizing of the event was pretty complicated.  Almost 200 people with busy weekday schedules had to be coordinated. The S.C. Progressive Network, local Quakers and the Harriet Tubman Freedom House Project were sponsors and kept the line moving, thanking each of us with a big smile as we finished.

The setting was just the right place.  The modest white wooden house in downtown Columbia, now a museum, was once the home of the fiery Modjeska Monteith Simkins, known as the “matriarch of civil rights activists” in South Carolina. For over sixty years she fought to alleviate the pain and hardships of our state's sick and poor, the underrepresented and underprivileged.  She challenged the white political leadership of the state to do what was fair and equitable among all people and she challenged black citizens to stand up and demand their rightful place in the state and the nation.  It was around her kitchen table that much of the work was done to develop the lawsuit seeking equality for black schools filed in Clarendon County under the name Briggs v Elliot.  This case, consolidated on appeal with others around the country, challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine in our nation’s schools. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court issued their opinion known as Brown v. Board of Education.
For his Irmo High School history class project some years ago, our son Jeff taped interviews with several South Carolinians from the civil rights era.  They included his father, Tom, who helped set up private schools to avoid integration, and US District Court Judge Matthew Perry, a former civil rights lawyer and colleague of Thurgood Marshall.  The best interview was with Modjeska, 82 years old by then, as they sat rocking on the front porch of this house, chatting.  Jeff said she told a million stories—some irrelevant, but still absorbing--sipped a lot of something from the mason jar—he thought maybe it was not the same as the sweet tea she brought him—and she was the most fascinating person he had ever met
Community activist and writer, Kevin Gray organized the daylong reading of the iconic slavery-era novel as a way for community members to participate in history--to pause for just 10 minutes in the rush of our busy day to read a passage from the most relevant book the group could have picked on the day the Civil War started. Some South Carolinians tout states’ rights as the major cause of the war and deny that slavery was the primary reason for secession and the war. Kevin and many of us felt that it was important to set the record straight in a historically connected and low key counterpoint way.  Published in 1852 and written by white abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 650 page book depicts life for African-American slaves. It tells the story of the slave Tom who refused to betray his fellow slaves, at the cost of his life.  The book is credited with having a huge impact on the abolitionist movement.  It’s the book that convinced white folks around the country and around the world that slavery was a cruel institution.  Legend has it that, upon meeting her, Abraham Lincoln greeted Ms. Stowe by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

All day long on April 12th, women in heels and sandals, men in suits and jeans, kids in scout uniforms and soccer shorts came and went. Inside we sat in folding chairs, straddling camera cables, as we followed along in the books scattered around the room. When it was our turn at the mike, we stepped up to face the cameras, and began.  I was nervous. A room full of people listened. ETV was recording the event for a documentary. WIS was filming for the evening news. Our words were being streamed live on line.  I am a good reader, but the language in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is somewhat dated, and I was afraid the dialect would trip me up. I wanted to read with some expression, so nobody would miss the meaning of the story. All that was running through my head as I began to read, and my voice was shaky at first.  But when I started reading, I forgot everything except the compelling words of Harriet Beecher Stowe. I had forgotten what a powerful book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.

When I came to the podium at 10am, we were in Chapter VII.   The evil slave trader Haley is crashing through the woods, searching for Eliza, the runaway slave. Even though he feels bad about it, Eliza’s “good” slave master  has sold her child, Harry, to cover his debts and she has fled the plantation, her home since her birth, so that her family will not be ripped apart. The tension is fierce. Eliza, alone and desperate, is tortured by fears of what will happen to her child as she makes her way through the thicket toward what she hopes is freedom.  Haley, wild-eyed and enraged, tears around in the undergrowth along the path in mad pursuit. The slaves assigned to guide him, playing dumb, lead Haley down the wrong route, giving Eliza a good head start. My time ends on that very satisfactory note.

For readers in the North, who had no idea what slavery really meant, this part of the story would be their introduction to one of the horrors of the institution of slavery. Slave holders sell their people as property; Families are torn apart; mothers watch their children sold, knowing they will probably never see them again. Even a relatively kind slaveholder makes no difference in the system.  I’m glad I got to read that section of the story.

We read late into the night, from 8am till 4:15 a.m.  We finished in just over 20 hours.  It was a good day.


  1. I would like to thank Kevin Gray for organizing this timely, unique, and meaningful event.

  2. I am almost embarrassed to say that I have never read the book. Too many books, too little time. But. along with all of theother ways you have inspired me, you have inspired me to read UTC. Thanks for all that you guys do.

  3. There is no way to read anywhere near the number of books we would like to read. Judy tries to by reading about 4 books at once. I kid her by saying it makes her even more scatter-brained but who am I to accuse someone of being scatter-brained? Anyway, the deniers of the African-American holocaust should be required to read Uncle Tom's Cabin.


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