Legacies of Resistance: A Literature Review
Did Gullah Geechee women resist systemic sexual violence and define their freedom through Womanist application during the Reconstruction Era?
Author and historian Kate Cote Gillins writes, “South Carolina is an excellent source for new insights in the study of women, gender, and racial violence in the postwar era.” In her book, Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900, Gillins examines how the unique conditions of South Carolina allowed inhabitants, Black and White, male and female, formerly enslaved and free, to shape gender roles and power structures that we are still actively engaging with and fighting to dismantle. While not quoted again in this review, Gillins' claim speaks to the goal of this study. In order to comprehend and analyze the ways in which people of different races and genders engage with each other today, a great place to start is South Carolina—the birthplace of the Secession. With this perspective, readers can determine what enslaved, and later freed women were resisting. One can also understand why philosophies such as womanism and feminism are necessary. What did freedwomen in South Carolina experience during Reconstruction? How can their lessons of resistance be applied today?
Historically, Africana women have used various physical and intellectual tools to resist dehumanization and exploitation. Feminism and womanism are both ideologies considered significant in women’s struggles for equality and civil rights. When trying to gain understanding of these philosophies and how they apply to Southern freedwomen, researchers can look to prominent scholars of women and gender studies. Valenthia Watkins, PhD argues that feminism cannot and should not be assigned posthumously to black women who were activists. In “Contested Memories: A Critical Analysis of the black Feminist Revisionist History Project,” Watkins claims that because feminism holds white supremacy at its core, black women are indefinitely excluded from engaging fully and authentically. The sexual exploitation and oppression of Black women in this country is also rooted in white supremacy. Watkins argues that these facts can’t be ignored just to associate black women with the ideology, or rewrite the history of the ideology to encompass the experiences of black women. Scholars who include historic Africana women in feminist anthologies without said women self-identifying as feminists do so in order to recruit a younger generation of black women into the feminist ideology. Watkins is the Director of Women’s Studies Department and an assistant professor of African American Studies at Howard University. Her aversion for feminism is evident in her professional work. In a 2013 conference, she claimed “the Eurocentrism of Feminism and referred to Susan B. Anthony as ‘the Sarah Palin of her day.’” It is with this bias that she warns against what she calls the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project or BF-RHP. She doesn’t advocate for womanism in this text. She doesn’t refer to it at all. However, the interpretation of womanism offered by the following scholars suggests that Watkins might agree.
There are many Black women who have added context and color to the understanding and application of Womanism. This theory is seen as one that affirms Black women in their entirety. This includes their many intersecting identities and the forms of oppression they endure. In Dorothy Randall Tsuruta’s article “The Womanish Roots of Womanism: A Culturally-Derived and African-Centered Idea (Concept),” she holds similar beliefs that womanism is an innate part of black women’s lives. She references Alice Walker, known as the creator of the term, and discusses how the word “womanish,” which is included in Walker’s definition of womanism, is a term deeply rooted within Africana culture and experience. She goes on to assert that though non-white women who identify as feminists must constantly grapple with the ways feminism historically ignores their intersectional identities, including race, gender and sexuality, womanism exists separately from and despite feminism. With this perspective, the ways in which Africana women have lived, loved, resisted, survived and thrived throughout history are all examples of womanist application. Where Watkins posits that feminism cannot be applied to any black women who didn’t self-identify that way, both Tsuruta and Phillips argue that all black women exhibit characteristics of womanism. This applies to free Gullah Geechee women in South Carolina.
Countless scholars, many of them female, have gone great lengths to expose the harshness of slavery and how sexual terror and violence continued to reverberate throughout Reconstruction and beyond. To understand the lives of free southern women during Reconstruction, Leslie Schwalm is considered a leading scholar in this regard, publishing numerous pieces of literature about enslaved and freedwomen in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Schwalm is a feminist and an historian. Along with teaching at the University of Iowa, she orchestrates panels and has published countless literature on the subjects of race, gender, southern slavery and its impact. It is with these priorities that she gives voice and perspective to the free Gullah Geechee women. In “Sweet Dreams of Freedom: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina,” Schwalm makes evident the extraordinary strides freedwomen took towards their liberation. The Lowcountry offered a unique system of plantation labor; one that promoted nuanced forms of family and autonomy. Freed women understood that their value had previously rested on their ability to reproduce, and the outwardly assigned identity as wanton, subhuman workers, always available for the sexual desires of others. Emancipation brought new labels and terminology to the landscape, but the racial dynamics that positioned Black women on the bottom tier remained, morphed, intensified. Common themes persisted throughout the transition to freedom and despite a concerted effort to keep black women fearful and compliant.
In this article, Schwalm challenges the long-held notion that enslaved, and later, freedwomen were inactive, non-resistant or docile work mules. Quite the contrary, freedwomen industriously shaped their own definitions of freedom for themselves and their families. Historically, Black women have carved out spaces for themselves; defiantly resisting societal norms, sadistic violence, and the expectations of those around them, never-ceasing the attempt to create the world they desired.
Schwalm further elaborates on the contrasting perspectives surrounding free women and their choices. She quotes plantation mistresses-turned employers’ complaints of their former slaves’ refusal to continue doing work that they considered demeaning, and choosing to prioritize their own families above the white families they were once forced to serve. She opens the article with a story about a formerly enslaved woman named Peggy. Shortly after the Civil War, Peggy and others like her, not only destroyed planter homes; they took furniture and other coveted belongings and claimed them as their own. Charles Manigault, a rice planter whose journal Schwalm quoted, stated “Peggy also confiscated from the Manigault residence, some ‘Pink Ribands, & tied in a dozen bows the woolly head of her Daughter, to the admiration of other Negroes.”
Freed women wanted to work on their own terms. They wanted the freedom and safety to care for their families, and be compensated for the works of their hands. Schwalm challenges the notion that freed women were either unengaged with the process of freedom or that they simply yielded to the desires of their black male counterparts. Historians speculated that women’s withdrawal from the fields, recorded in labor and housing documentation, was due to freed people seeking to align themselves with white planter class gender-roles. However, it wasn’t that free women simply refused to work. Work was as interwoven into freedom as it was into slavery. They simply wanted to be in control of their labor. Schwalm builds on the research of other historians breathing new life into the lived experiences and agency of black women when she describes the roles they took. From insisting on controlling the terms of their “productive and reproductive labor in their own and their family’s best interest.” They participated in politics, education, church and other parts of the community during Reconstruction. The lone Peggy, referred to in the beginning of the article, wasn’t lone at all. In fact, Schwalm and others suggest she was the standard, more common than not. Certainly each individual experienced freedom differently. However, it is evident that free women played an active role in shaping the lives they wanted to live.
Schwalm indicates other reasons women’s patterns of labor transformed. In the years before the Civil War, Lowcountry planters began moving their enslaved laborers further inland, and away from Union army occupations. This changed the labor force. As southern white men joined the Confederate military, there was less productivity on the plantation, and less profit led to a decrease in the purchases of basic necessities for the enslaved laborers. 
In some cases Black women resisted physically. A violent scene occurred in 1866 on Keithsfield Plantation. Schwalm describes an abandoned plantation usurped by former enslaved people. In 1865, the widow of an abandoned planter requested help from a nearby planter in regaining her control of her plantation. Well hated by freedmen, the planter, Francis Parker, Sr. participated in a “ritualized public execution of recaptured fugitive slaves during the war.” In a story corroborated by both Parker and a former slave driver, the gang of freed people took axes, hatchets, hows and poles as weapons, threatening to kill the white men. At least eight to ten women joined in the efforts to defend the property they’d claimed. They fought relentlessly with sticks and clubs, beating the men over the heads and backs until they were bloody. 
While not mentioned once within this article, Schwalm details for readers, explicit examples of womanist theory in action. Prolific writer Alice Walker is generally noted as the originator of this term, mentioning it once in her 1979 short story “Coming Apart”, and again in more detail in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, published in 1983. She is followed by Chikewenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, who coined African womanism; and Clenora Hudson-Weems who created Africana womanism. However, as stated in Womanist Reader by Layli Phillips, “Significantly, none of these authors created something new; rather, each named something that had been in existence for some time, functioning below the academic and activist radar and outside dominant histories of consciousness.” This is to say, women of African descent have been practicing womanist theory long before anyone gave it a name. Phillips further details the theory in her book’s introduction.
She believes that the practice of womanism existed long before it was given any attention from academia. She argues that there are examples throughout history of Africana women displaying attributes of bravery, wittiness, disruptiveness, resistance and self-awareness; attributes associated with womanism. All of these descriptions can be applied to freedwomen in the Lowcountry south. Phillips quotes Alice Walker’s reference regarding womanism being a more common act than feminism, encompassing every day resistive acts of black women as womanist. She claims that this removes womanism from a sole ideological and academic existence and grounds it firmly in real-life application. Readers can determine that womanism is perhaps an innately Black female response to the oppression that is so common to the Africana women’s experience.
Another extraordinary scholar and self-identified womanist, Crystal Feimster, has published numerous pieces that focus on the sexual exploitation of African American women. In “Black Women’s Campaign for Sexual Justice and Citizenship,” she discusses the ways Black women fought for their sexual freedom and human rights. Until 1861, it was believed that Black women couldn’t be victims of rape. This convenient belief rested upon the strategically crafted, widely accepted narrative that Back women were sexual deviants who never turned down sex—especially the sexual advances of white men. The Civil War presented conditions closer to justice than any African American women ever saw during slavery. Lincoln signed an order deeming rape against any women in a Union occupied area a war crime. This of course didn’t eliminate the reality of rape in the lives of Black women. However, Black women did testify against their accused white rapists in military courts.
Feimster highlights the extensive work of other scholars reshaping the field and comprehension of race, women and gender studies. Feimster states that the Reagan - George H.W. Bush era, as well as Anita Hill’s widely publicized and politicized sexual harassment case against Clarence Thomas forced feminists, women’s historians, and Africana scholars to re-explore the intersections of race and gender. It was understood that it wasn’t enough to simply acknowledge that Black women experience both race and gender in a way that can’t be separated. It was necessary to highlight the history of sexual violence that impacted both Black and white women’s lives.
Of course, every integral contribution to the nuanced understanding of Reconstruction didn’t come from women. For example, W.E.B Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, activist and author who offers a look at Reconstruction that at the time of its publication was revolutionary. In his groundbreaking book Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880; he challenges a strategically crafted false narrative that justified slavery by purporting the inferiority of Africana people. Ever the intellectual and direct scholar, Du Bois interprets the data and makings of the United States from the perspective of all of the players. From this vantage point, we see what was at stake for everyone involved. It offers and muses over the question, did Reconstruction ever have a chance?
Du Bois paints a vivid portrait of Reconstruction, depicting the different motivations for everyone involved. As Du Bois claims, from its beginnings, this country was designed to greatly benefit a small minority, at the cost of EVERYONE else. The minority, in this case, are wealthy colonists and international benefactors. He begins the book with sections representing the perspective of the black laborer, the white worker, and the planter; acknowledging all of their nuances and what they believed were just causes. A significant point made is the awareness enslaved African and their descendants had about what was happening and how and why the war was unfolding. The regularly shifting dynamics were of great interest to those bonds-people who were literate; those who were hired out, and those who lived in the cities. This knowledge impacted their actions. More specifically, enslaved women recognized a change and took advantage of it. Many fled the plantations, seeking refuge in Union territory. The Sea Islands of Port Royal were occupied by 1861 and black women headed there throughout the war, forging their freedom.
All of the resources above can be used to understand the choices and actions of free women after slavery. Tumultuous conditions in the south were major obstacles for these women to face and a certain character was required in order to survive and thrive. While none of these women self-identified as feminists or womanists, one can conclude that attributes associated with womanism are common characteristics of these women and their plight for freedom. Additionally, all of the scholars who have worked to change the narratives and provide a history that respects the most marginalized are creating an extraordinary legacy to build upon.
*Title photo is of me and colleague Christine Mitchell at Magnolia Plantation during a presentation of Inalienable Rights: Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved as part of the Slave Dwelling Project. The photo was taken by English Purcell
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1977. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: Atheneum.
Feimster, Crystal N., “Black Women’s Campaign for Sexual Justice and Citizenship,” in The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era Ser.: The World the Civil War Made. ed. Gregory Downs and Kate Masur, eds., 249-269 Chapel Hill, US: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Accessed March 8, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.
Feimster, Crystal N. "The Impact of Racial and Sexual Politics on Women's History." Journal Of American History 99, no. 3 (December 2012): 822-826. Accessed February 23, 2017)
Gillin, Kate Côté. Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900. Columbia, US: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 29 March 2017.
Phillips, Layli. Womanist Reader. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2006. accessed February 15, 2017. http://site.ebrary.com.proxy.myunion.edu/lib/tui/reader.action? docID=10172082
Schwalm, Leslie A. "'Sweet Dreams of Freedom': Freedwomen's Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina." Journal Of Women's History 9, no. 1 (1997) Accessed February 13, 2017. Project MUSE, EBSCOhost
Tsuruta, Dorothy Randall. "The Womanish Roots of Womanism: A Culturally-Derived and African-Centered Ideal (Concept)." Western Journal Of Black Studies 36, no. 1 (Spring2012): 3-10. Accessed February 20, 2017. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost
Watkins, Valenthia PhD. “Contested Memories: A Critical Analysis of the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project,” Journal of Pan African Studies 9, no. 4 (2016): 271-288. accessed February 14, 2017.
 Gillin, Kate Côté. Shrill Hurrahs: Women, Gender, and Racial Violence in South Carolina, 1865-1900. Columbia, US: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 28 March 2017.
 Valenthia Watkins, PhD., “Contested Memories: A Critical Analysis of the Black Feminist Revisionist History Project,” Journal of Pan African Studies 9, no, 4 (2016) 280. accessed February 14, 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=46023212-16af-414e-bbe8-4e821fd98ad5%40sessionmgr102&vid=2&hid=121
 Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, “The Womanish Toots of Womanism: A Culturally-Derived and african-Centered Ideal (Concept).” Western Journal of Black Studies 36, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 3-10. accessed February 20, 2017. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/pdfviewer/ pdfviewer? sid=eee1b754-a249-4329-bc27-7af5381d267d %40sessionmgr104&vid=7&hid=103
 Schwalm, Leslie A., “Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina.” Journal of Women’s History no. 1: 9 (1997) : 26-28, accessed February 10, 2017. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.proxy.myunion.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b40768d8-c6c6-45b3-abe6-169fc525d37c%40sessionmgr103&vid=1&hid=119
 Schwalm, Leslie A., “Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina.” Journal of Women’s History no. 1: 9 (1997) : 31, accessed February 10, 2017.
 Ibid. 22
 Ibid. 22
 Ibid. 8
 Ibid. 10
 Ibid. 13
 Ibid. 14.
 Ibid. 16
 Layli Phillips. Womanist Reader. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2006: 21. Accessed February 11, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.
 Ibid. xx
 Ibid. xx
 Crystal N. Feimster, “Black Women’s Campaign for Sexual Justice and Citizenship,” in The Steven and Janice Brose Lectures in the Civil War Era Ser.: The World the Civil War Made.ed. Gregory Downs and Kate Masur, eds., 2015, Chapel Hill, US: University of North Carolina Press, 250.
 Crystal N. Feimster, “The Impact of Racial and Sexual Politics on Women’s History,” Journal of American History 99, no. 3, 2012, 10
 W.E.B Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: Atheneum. 1977. 57-58
 Leslie A. Schwalm, “Sweet Dreams of Freedom’: Freedwomen’s Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina.” Journal of Women’s History no. 1: 9 (1997) : 27, accessed February 10, 2017.