This piece is the sole entrant into the Sixth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We invited graduate students to “tell a story about any time, topic, person, or place in urban history that foregrounds sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch,” and this essay depicts the sensory experiences of a woman exercising her agency during and after enslavement.
By Bridget Laramie Kelly
Ms. Rose Goethe spent the better part of a lifetime enslaved at Goatte’s Mill, a rice plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina. For sixty-four years Rose passed beneath rows of towering oak trees that lined Beaufort’s cemented streets, roads constructed from an alchemy of oyster shells, sand, lime, and ash—one of the earliest forms of American concrete. Along her walks, Rose wondered about freedom and her future as she counted antebellum mansions that imitated classical elements of design like the columns and piazzas framed with Spanish moss. Perhaps Rose wondered if she would ever see and experience a different place.
Black men and women in South Carolinian port cities were enslaved at the most profitable and politically powerful rice plantations, yet brilliantly managed to build somewhat independent lives. Ms. Rose Goethe represented herself as a midwife and farmer enslaved at Mr. Washington Wiley and Eliza Goethe’s rice plantation.[i] Despite her enslavement, Rose, like many other enslaved people in Beaufort, managed to carve out time for themselves. Rose grew corn and peas and raised hogs on a family farm she ran with her husband and daughter. Rose prepared the soil, breaking up rocks to allow for a smoother, more hospitable surface. Rose tilled one row at a time and taught her daughter, Harriet, the skills of farming and the patience it requires. Sixty days after sowing the initial seeds, Rose and Harriet noticed the first green tendrils of corn emerge from the warm, black dirt. As the crop grew, she moved her hands along the cob and invited her daughter to feel the textured kernels beginning to take form. When the corn and pea plants showed signs of distress, Harriet and her parents met the crops’ earthly needs with cooling water and shade. Finally, after a blistering summer of coastal sun, the sweet corn and peas reached maturation in September, just as the air began to cool. Five months later, before her family consumed their total harvest, just as Rose was about to return to the soil for another season, she watched as men dressed in Union blue forcibly broke into her home and carried away all her bushels and belongings.
Rose witnessed General Sherman’s Union troops:
Take out my bacon, smoked beef, fifteen bushels of corn, forty towels, one bushel of peas, three gallons of syrup, four [illegible] of sugar, one and a half [illegible] rice, and one pack of lard. They also took my clothes, blankets, and bedding pots, and pans, and other household articles. They cleaned me out entirely.[ii]
On February 2, 1865, Rose Goethe experienced a burglary and political liberation in the same moment, when Union troops arrived in Beaufort. Unlike Charleston, which burnt to the ground, the port city of Beaufort was spared complete destruction. Instead, Union troops seized plantation operations and residences—even enslaved people’s private quarters. In 1871, in one of the first acts of Reconstruction, the United States government established the Southern Claims Commission to address petitions for compensation of provisions, livestock, or other supplies taken by the Union troops during the Civil War.[iii] Denied political belonging, Black Southerners, like Rose Goethe, created connections with the land, animals, homes, farms, clothing, and equipment they rightfully claimed as their own. Enslaved men and women assigned meaning to their fragile position in a nation that barred them from citizenship but allowed for a modicum of material ownership. Adam Ruth, one of Rose’s neighbors, testified to the commission that he “saw them [General Sherman’s troops] take from Rose Goethe all she had.”[iv] The taking of property and belongings created by people deprived of bodily autonomy in the civic sense is doubly painful in a nation like the United States, where citizenship requires and expects capital ownership.
In 1787 constitutional delegates relegated democratic principles secondary to commerce when the founders codified executive authority to safeguard private property, including the ownership of human beings. The American Constitution and the people the articles protect emerged from a contentious compromise regarding who really counts in America, or, more specifically, how they count. The decision to demarcate enslaved people like Rose as three-fifths of a person allowed South Carolina and other slave states to ensure slavery’s durability and solidified the fundamental place coerced labor, especially upon Black female bodies, would have in American growth and prosperity. Such reductions further allowed Black claims of property loss to be viewed as less substantial and valuable than white financial losses.
Rose Goethe’s claim was one of 20,000, all of which included first-person accounts of how people survived slavery, detailed descriptions of thefts and physical assaults, as well as family histories and claims of political allegiance.[v] While Black people in Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown made more than twice the number of claims as their white neighbors, they received a fraction of money compared to the payments made to white South Carolinians. Ms. Goethe ultimately made a successful case that the United States government owed her restitution; however, the $102 awarded to her amounted to just over one-third the total she claimed ($282). Theorists of racialized capitalism understand free market trade and property values as dependent upon racial inequality and demonstrate how race is integrally tied to liberalism.[vi] Most scholars view racialized capitalism as a process that devalues Black property, and while this does occur, I view public and private efforts to underestimate and confiscate Black property and life as evidence of the inherent power of Black capital. State and private action designed to dispossess Black property owners demonstrates the ruling class’s commitment to racialized capitalism. Rose and other enslaved people who lost wealth when they gained citizenship were reminded that the liberal promise of inclusion comes at a price.
People are socially and physically constituted by the objects they own and consume, and they attach meanings that transcend market value. Ms. Goethe waited ten years and endured dilatory tactics to make her claim and still did not receive her check until March 24, 1877, two years after her case officially closed.[vii] In the first moments of political freedom, Rose and thousands of others lost wealth they would never fully recover. Racialized capitalism and the theft of Black labor, capital, and life was in the making for centuries, beginning on the coast of West Africa, but found its fullest expression in liberal terms with the federal government’s theft of Black property in the moment of alleged emancipation.
Twenty-three enslaved people and twelve free people of color made successful claims of property loss and Union loyalty in Beaufort. In the examination of the sixty-four claims from the port cities of Beaufort, Georgetown, and Charleston, I found a significant, albeit small, emerging middle class among the enslaved population in the wealthiest counties in South Carolina. Enslaved people in port cities like Beaufort, where a Black majority existed from 1730 to 1960, experienced unusual degrees of mobility due to their demographic advantage and proximity to riverine networks, morasses, and the Atlantic Coast. While this essay has focused on Rose Goethe’s postbellum property claim in Beaufort, and more broadly in other port cities of South Carolina, her dictum, “they cleaned me out entirely,” stands in as a representation of the unvisited and forgotten experience of thousands of former slaves who lost all their belongings in the same moment they gained birthright citizenship.
Exactly a decade later, in 1875, Ms. Goethe recognized that in order to recover remnants of what was already hers she would need to “beg” that she “be allowed something for [her] Blankets, Quilts, and Mattress,”[viii] personal items she witnessed soldiers fold up and use as “saddle blankets.”[ix] When asked why she did not report these items as stolen or apply for a voucher/receipt, Rose answered, “I was too much frightened” because “they took the black people’s property as well as the whites.”[x] Rose had to fight hard to recover “something” from the items she so carefully brought into being. She waited ten years to make public her very private experience with Sherman’s Army, and she negotiated the brutal contradiction that the same political entity that stole from her in 1865 was now responsible for determining the legitimacy of her claim. The Southern Claims Commission closed Ms. Goethe’s case on May 14, 1875, and Special Commissioner J.P.M. Epping summarized, “I have no remarks to make in this case except that claimant and witnesses testified with candor and truthfulness.”[xi]
Rose did not have to dig deep in her vault of memories to testify, because the events of February 2, 1865, were never too far from her mind. Rose’s emancipation lived in her memory in physical and sensorial ways. She began her deposition by describing the items, as well as specific amounts, of stolen bacon, beef, vegetables, and personally made home goods. As Rose recalled the trauma of losing all the belongings she owned, her mouth may have tasted sour as she described the bacon she never got to savor. Perhaps her fingers and toes clenched as she thought about the patterns and textures of the quilts she designed, blankets she so wished to hold in that moment, precious heirlooms she would never pass down to her grandchildren—Henry, Joe, Rose, Pompey, and Caroline.
The Southern Claims Commission archive registers the thousands of voices echoing that the price for Black freedom was measured in material loss. I use this archive to explore the broader problem of how the Black community negotiated the paradox of American liberalism, a contradiction between a promise of inclusion that represented, at the same time, a sentence of financial loss, physical containment, and communal demolition. Appraisals of financial value by the federal agents of the Southern Claims Commission more than a decade later failed to assess the psychological privation that occurred and the pricelessness of family heirlooms. The $102 could not heal the grief from losing the quilts Rose carefully stitched or the savory bacon she never got to taste. The clothes, blankets, and bedding represented the comfort and relief Rose brilliantly stitched together, which offered brief moments of comfort and safety from the brutality of her enslavement. The trauma of this experience, allegedly the moment of Goethe’s emancipation, was instead one of assault and suffering as “the soldiers took it all, never left me a piece.”[xii] Ten years later the torment of her “liberation” still stung.
Bridget Kelly is a third year PhD student of International Urban History who researches Black suburbanization in postbellum American cities. In her dissertation Bridget conducts a comparative study of three suburban neighborhoods located in Tennessee, Missouri, and Georgia, built for Black American settlement in the final decade of the nineteenth century. By comparing the evolution, experiences, and different outcomes of Orange Mound, Meacham Park, and Johnsontown, she hopes to uncover the brutal reality of American liberalism, or what she calls the “materiality of belonging,” a condition that requires the ownership, possession, and later relinquishment of property in exchange for a semblance of political membership, an experience all too common with Black neighborhoods in American cities. Bridget’s first article, “The Materiality of Belonging: Black Property Claims During the Civil War” was awarded a Publication Accelerator Grant from the Institute of Humane Studies and is forthcoming. Bridget is also working on a chapter about the undemocratic use of TIF funds to “redevelop” Black neighborhoods. The chapter will appear in a volume titled, Applying Public Choice Theory to Public Policy, published by Rowman and Littlefield. Bridget’s broader intellectual interests include urbanization, American Indian studies, and race and gender in the city.
Featured image (at top): Copy of the plot of the city of Beaufort, South Carolina, drawn by B. Schelten in relation to General Sherman’s Southern military campaign. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
[i] Claim of Rose Goethe. As a witness at Rose’s hearing, Mrs. Eliza Peeples (formerly Goethe) boasted to the federal agents, “I always allowed my slaves to own and accumulate personal property,” and later emphasized how she and her first husband, Wiley Washington Goethe, “allowed our slaves some land to plant some provisions in their spare time.” Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 108.
[ii] Claim of Rose Goethe, pages 1-25, Beaufort County, South Carolina, Southern Claims Commission, accessed digitally through Fold3, 15.
[iii] On March 3, 1871, Congress established the Southern Claims Commission authorizing President Grant to nominate “three commissioners of claims (to be confirmed by the Senate) to receive, examine, and consider the claims of those citizens who remained loyal adherents to the cause and the government of the United States during the war.” Records of the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission), 1871-1880 (M-87), published in 1972.
[iv] Claim of Rose Goethe, 7.
[v] The fourth section of the Fifth Amendment, commonly known as the “due process” clause, protects life, liberty, and property from impairment by the federal government.
[vi] Cedric Robinson Jr., Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Books, 1983); Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
[vii] In the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, Rose Goethe shared a household with her daughter Harriott Smith and grandson Henry. As the head of house and eighty-seven years old, Ms. Goethe still worked as a midwife. Her daughter Harriott was 53 in 1880 and reported her occupation as “keeping house.” Henry Smith, Rose’s grandson was 17 in 1880 and worked as a farm laborer.
[viii] Rose Goethe received $95.50, after $6.70 in fees were deducted.
[ix] Claim of Rose Goethe, 18.
[x] Claim of Rose Goethe, 15.
[xi] See note above.
[xii] Claim of Rose Goethe.