Commemorating a “Loyal Slave” In Georgia

St. Simons Island, Georgia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Civic leaders in Glynn County, Georgia, are proposing a sculpture trail to commemorate that county’s history and promote tourism to the area. One of the sculptures being proposed highlights Neptune Small, an enslaved man on the Retreat Plantation. When the Civil War broke out Small’s enslaver, Henry King, brought Small with him to Confederate military lines. When King died on the battlefield, Small picked up King’s body and eventually brought it back home. The Sculptor, Kevin Pullen, explained that “What I tell people is it’s a love story. Because these two grew up together. They were love buds when they were little people. The whole slavery and Civil War piece was the backdrop for their lives. They lived on the same property, and they grew up in the same place.”

Historian James De Wolfe Perry pointed out that “As an enslaved person, [Small] had incentives other than loyalty or devotion” for returning King’s body. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory added that “This is an interpretive weakness of the entire Lost Cause narrative that it makes little attempt to engage former slaves as to motivation and how they viewed their participation in the war.” He followed up with a blog post, commenting that “The basic outline of Pullen’s account accords with the available evidence, but to depict Small in his role as the loyal slave feeds into an insidious myth that has long been used to justify legal segregation, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause narrative of the war.”

I tend to agree with these sentiments. My initial response to this proposed sculpture is great discomfort. To me it seems to romanticize slavery and the master-slave relationship, which in Pullen’s telling of Small and King’s relationship is a “love story.” It also downplays the fact that the “loyal” Neptune Small and enslaved camp servants like him were not there voluntarily in service to the Confederate military, but due to impressment. In reality, we don’t know what Small’s motivations were for returning King’s body to Georgia. It is not a stretch to suggest, for example, that perhaps Small returned King to his old plantation in the hopes of gaining his freedom for this action. And as the article points out, the Kings did give Small an 8-acre tract of land for returning his enslaver’s body. The murky details of this story make me skeptical about the wisdom of commemorating it through a sculpture.

Cheers

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2 thoughts on “Commemorating a “Loyal Slave” In Georgia

  1. Was reading this morning from a book titled “What Slaveholders Think,” by Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, a sociologist studying modern slavery and slaveholders in India. He said somethings about Indian bonded labor today that could fit onto our own history here…

    “… the rhetoric of love ‘functions as a discourse that encompasses employer claims of affection and familiar relationships that bind servants and employers to each other.'”

    “This approach allows the slaveholder to perceive the laborer as receiving the benefit and the landlord himself as providing for a vulnerable community member…. In one landlord’s narrative, the bonded-labor arrangement was not intentional, and it certainly was not coerced. … the ideal relationship is that of a family, and talking about this requires a rhetoric of love that both masks and hides exploitation in a culture of servitude in which servants are often depicted as ‘part of the family.’ What slaveholders find hard to accept is the fact that the rhetoric of love is being replaced by what could be called the rhetoric of contract.”

    The “rhetoric of love” cited by the sculptor above has, as you know, a huge blind spot as to the coerced “contractual” exchanges between slave and master. The “rhetoric of love” is also the dominant language of the pro-slavery Christians that I study, and is also the basis for bulls**t interpretive takes on things like Stonewall Jackson’s Sunday School and the Christianizing of Africans.

    1. Great comment, thanks! Virginia’s Scharff’s edited volume on the U.S. west during the Civil War era has a fascinating essay about labor practices in the 19th century Spanish/Mexican southwest prior to U.S. conquest of the area, and this “rhetoric of love” is adopted to justify peonage and coerced labor and to reframe it as a mutually benefical relationship.

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