The South’s cultural dependence on history is mythic, and narratives about the past have often superseded facts. While the historical facts provide a clear portrayal of grim and regrettable realities, knowing what to do with and about that history in modern times is less clear. In this essay, McMillan grapples with the nuances of commingling fact with narrative and connects those issues to what sociologists call “material culture.”
by Norman McMillan
From the 1940s down to the present day, I have always been aware of them: a pair of ladder-back straight chairs constructed of white oak. They have been in my family since before the Civil War, when they were built by a slave on my great-grandfather David Avery’s place in Perry County, Alabama—now Hale County. In 1831, when he was eighteen, David came down to Alabama from Cumberland County, North Carolina, to join two older brothers, who had already established a business manufacturing horse-drawn gins and mills in Perry County. An enterprising young man, he soon took over the business, and his older brothers Bryant and Calvin went into cotton farming full-time. Later in the 1830s, David’s younger half-brother Richard came down from North Carolina and joined him as a partner in the gin business. They marketed their gins throughout the South as far away as Texas until at least 1872, when they published a fourteen-page advertising booklet for Avery, Avery & Co. Improved Cotton Gins. I do not know when the business finally closed, but I believe that it was no longer in operation when David Avery died in 1889.
Without giving up the gin business, David also became a cotton planter, using slaves in both pursuits. According to Angela Lakwete in her book on the history of the cotton gin in America, combining the two vocations was not at all unusual. “David Avery,” she wrote, “farmed extensively but called himself a ‘Gin Maker’ in the 1850 census.” As David expanded his farming interests, the number of slaves he owned increased significantly, as farming was more labor-intensive than gin manufacturing. In fact, the Perry County slave schedule of 1850 lists him with only nineteen slaves, and the 1860 schedule lists fifty-three. Although this increase is no doubt in part a result of procreation among the slaves (Thomas Jefferson said that a child-bearing slave woman was far more valuable to a slave owner than a field hand), I have receipts for the purchase of slaves by David Avery down to the early 1860s.
Interestingly, the 1850 slave census lists an occupation for only one of David’s slaves: a carpenter. We do not know this slave’s name, as slaves’ names were not listed in the schedules, but we do know that in 1850 this carpenter was thirty-six years old and was a mulatto. But the most interesting detail in the census form is his status as a fugitive from the state. A friend suggested that perhaps his occupation was listed to make it easier to find him. But whether he ever returned to David Avery’s place or not, we do not know. I like to think – but have no proof – that this thirty-six-year-old mulatto was the person who underwent the difficult process of building the two ladder-back chairs. Whoever the builder was, the chairs are a testament to the craftsman’s skill. They have, after all, lasted six generations, and they are as sturdy now as they ever were.
In an age that knew nothing of power tools, the slave’s task of building these chairs was exceedingly arduous. He had to fell the oak, strip away the bark, then split, plane, and shave the wood to the desired size. For each chair, he had to carve the concave slats for the back and create the four round uprights and the eight rungs that fit into them. Finally, he had to carve the finial balls on the top of the back uprights.
Then came the trickiest part of all: joining all the pieces together, employing the mortise and tenon technique. To get the grip necessary, the slave artisan had to dry the rungs – the tenons – in order to shrink them, then insert them into the undried mortises on the uprights. Slowly, the tenons would swell and the mortises would shrink until a proper grip was achieved, without using either glue or nails. Precision at this stage was absolutely necessary, or the mortise would split. This method of furniture making goes back over 7,000 years and was employed in the Far East as well as in the Western world. The English words mortise and tenon (from Old French tenir, meaning to hold) go back to medieval times. One who practiced this method of construction was called a joiner, a word first recorded in 1386, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So far, I have not been able to find out whether the mortise and tenon method was practiced in western Africa at the time of slave trading, so I do not know whether slaves brought the skill into the New World or had to be taught this method.
I never saw the original seats of the two chairs, but the experts I have talked to seem to be sure that they would have been made of split-oak and that the pattern would have been the common basket weave. This process itself requires great skill, first in creating the thin splints used to weave the seats, then soaking them so as to make them pliable, and finally choosing the pattern for the seats and weaving the splints onto the rungs of the chairs.
I have recently wondered whether the two chairs were first made for my great-grandfather’s house or for the slave’s own cabin. I had always assumed the former until I ran upon pen and ink drawings of slave quarters in Montgomery, Alabama, done in 1857 – 1858 by noted artist George Fuller. Two drawings depict ladder-back chairs that look just like the ones made on my great-grandfather’s place.
My father’s mother Emma inherited my great-grandfather’s house and the two chairs, and my father Albert McMillan (born in 1902) remembered the chairs being used throughout his childhood and adolescence in the early years of the twentieth century. After he married in 1925, the chairs were given to him, and they followed our family around Hale and Tuscaloosa counties for decades. Through the years, they were painted numerous times—I remember their being bright yellow, chalky blue, and chocolate brown. When the split-oak seats wore out, my father replaced them with solid wood seats. But the chairs themselves remained indestructible.
When my parents broke up housekeeping in the mid-1970s, somehow I fell heir to the two chairs. I decided immediately that I should refinish them and put in new seats. I got a stripping compound, but it was not equal to the many coats of lead-based paints applied over the years. I then got sandpaper to see if that would work, but the paint had gotten down into the grain of the wood so thoroughly that I could not sand enough to remove it. So I gave up and put the chairs in a storage room at my house on Pineview Road in Montevallo, Alabama.
About the time I was trying to work on the chairs, I happened to look back through some documents my father’s only sister, my Aunt Elizabeth, had given me, all related to the great-grandfather whose slave had made the chairs. I had never heard anything but praise for this man from anyone in the family. I had seen an obituary, which said this about him: “David Avery made a large fortune and was one of the purest, noblest men who ever lived in the country. Generous and liberal to a fault, his house was the home of orphans, for whom he cared for as his own children. His hospitality was unbounded, and he entertained more people than ordinary hotels. He lived without enemies, never during his long life having an unkind word with his neighbors.” Granted, obituary writing at the time tended toward hagiography, but this was the exact sort of thing I heard in my early years about this ancestor’s energy, kindness, benevolence, and high sense of virtue and honor. So it will not be surprising that one document among those my aunt gave me – papers also including receipts for the purchase of slaves – was rather unnerving.
This document, written in David Avery’s hand, is unfortunately undated. I first assumed that it was written shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but my friend, historian Marty Everse, told me that Southern slave owners paid little or no attention to the Emancipation Proclamation and certainly did not free their slaves. Much more likely, Everse said, was that my great-grandfather’s document was written shortly after Union forces occupied the state, probably in April 1865. My great-grandfather would surely have gotten the word that on May 4, 1865, in Citronelle, Alabama, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered to Union General Edward R. S. Canby. Historian Bertis Deon English, writing about Perry County, Alabama in the Civil War, thinks that Taylor’s surrender signaled the “actual emancipation” of slaves in Alabama.
On this torn and faded sheet, David Avery began a list of his slaves, but the list is incomplete. On this partial page, he lists only fifteen slaves, though he had owned fifty-three, according to the 1860 slave schedule. The list begins with “Schuller, fifty years of age valuable mechanic” and proceeds downward, through what appears to be a hierarchical listing, from mechanics to faithful laborers to a cook named Parlor to those with no designation. But the most interesting thing about the document, and the most unsettling, is how my great-grandfather introduced the list. It was, he said, a list of slaves “the possession [and] control of which he has been deprived by [the] United States.” What surely had him so upset was not only the loss of workers, but also the loss of collateral necessary for procuring loans. The slaves were, in his mind, his property, wrongfully stolen from him. It was said that a darkness came over him at this loss and that he never fully recovered from it.
Some years later, I told a somewhat unreconstructed cousin about the document, and he said he thought we should seek reparations from the federal government. I laughed as if he were making a joke, though I’m not sure but what the remark didn’t proceed from the same kind of resentment my great-grandfather’s had.
So this document was written by the man I had rather idealized, and I was somewhat shaken by the implications of it. By the time I was born, my father had sold off most of his inheritance, but in my formative years – when we struggled to make a living, moving around from place to place, even sharecropping for a while – I always felt good about myself, knowing that I had the blood of this man flowing in my veins. Even today, I can’t deny the importance of this family background in making me who I am. But upon reading my great-grandfather’s list of slaves almost forty years ago, I was shaken so much that I was quite happy for the two chairs to remain out of the way in indefinite storage.
I did not, however, forget them. Once, over twenty-five years ago, I brought up the topic when I was driving to Montgomery on professional business with Willie Mae Crews, a native of Perry County who was then a supervisor of English instruction with the Birmingham City Schools. A black woman with whom I had worked a number of times, Willie Mae was not only a good colleague, but a good friend. After I had recounted the story about the chairs and my great-grandfather’s document, I confessed that I now hardly knew what I should do with the chairs. Willie Mae looked at me with a wicked glint in her eye and said, “You can give them to me. My conscience is fully clear.” It was one of the best delivered rebukes and one of the most appropriately earned I ever received.
The chairs remained in my storage room through the years. When my son and his wife were building a new house in 2015, it suddenly occurred to me that we should have the chairs refinished as a gift for them. I didn’t want them tossed aside when I died, which might have easily happened. I thought that I might be able to find a professional who could actually strip the chairs, so I went online to a site where you could explain what you wanted done and any member of the Birmingham consortium could respond if interested. I received only one response, from a Latino guy named Jose, and he said that he and his partner Jose (!) could do it for me for $2.50 a foot, an amount I thought suspiciously cheap. But since no one else answered, I hired them to do the job.
When Jose and Jose picked up the chairs, I leveled with them that stripping the chairs might be an impossible task, but they said they would give it a try. A few weeks later, they brought the chairs back for me to see them, and I knew immediately that refinishing them to the original oak was out of the question and suggested that they paint them with several coats of semi-gloss white enamel, which they agreed to do. A short time later, Jose and Jose drove up and took the chairs out of the van. One Jose had a roller, and he even touched up the painting right there in my yard. I was quite pleased with the paint job, and I paid them $150. They left quite happy, I’m sure, to be finished with the job, and I was more than happy with the result.
At this point, I did not know what sort of seats I would put in the chairs. I actually thought my son and his wife would use them more if the seats were upholstered so I went to the local upholsterer, who told me he couldn’t upholster them and convinced me that the chairs should have split oak seats. He recommended that I take them to a place called Bare Wood in Birmingham, which had a caner on its staff. I took the chairs there, and in a few weeks, they had beautiful split oak seats with a basket weave. This cost me $190 for both chairs, which I thought to be a very reasonable price.
As it happened, just as the chairs were being redone a young white man named Dylann Roof, on June 17, 2015, went to a Bible study class at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine black people. He had been inspired by online racist groups. The horror of this act seemed to strike a chord, not only in South Carolina, but across the nation. One of the main results was that people began to question more than ever the symbols, monuments, and other artifacts associated with the period of slavery in America. The South Carolina governor ordered that a Confederate flag flying on the Capitol grounds be taken down, and there was increased discussion about what the flag stood for. I had long known that the Confederate Battle Flag was a racist symbol and that it had been placed atop Southern capitol buildings only during the Civil Rights era in the ’50s and ’60s as a defiant symbol of segregation. After the tragedy in Charleston, Confederate flags began to be removed in other places, including Alabama, when the governor ordered that the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds be taken down. Naturally, I was pleased with these developments.
But then the discussion broadened to include any monuments in honor of slave owners, white supremacists, or Confederate soldiers, many of which were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in the early twentieth century. In May 2017, New Orleans removed statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, for example, and the mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave an excellent defense of their removal.
My mother always told us that on her side we were kin to Robert E. Lee, my great-grandmother having been a Lee. When I was young, I’d use that information to impress my classmates. While I have kept that ancestry to myself for years, I was a little surprised to see that his statue in New Orleans got removed.
About that time, I read that Morgan Hall, in which I took most of my English classes at the University of Alabama, was removing a portrait of John Tyler Morgan, a Confederate general with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, and later his name was removed from the building. I heard that there was a petition being circulated to rename Morgan Hall for Alabama icon Harper Lee. I also received a letter from Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization I much admire, calling on me to join with others to “launch a major campaign to identify and expose prominent government-sanctioned symbols honoring the Confederacy” and “to pressure governmental bodies to remove these hateful symbols in order to foster a climate of healing.”
Later, on August 11, 2017, a group of white supremacists and neo-Confederates, a number of them armed, held a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the possible removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the city’s Lee Park. But things quickly got out of hand, leading to violent confrontations with counter-demonstrators and ending in the death of a young woman when one of the white supremacists purposefully drove his automobile into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. This rally did a great deal to further the discussion of race in America, and even President Donald Trump commented on it. There were good people “on both sides” of the conflict, he said, though he seemed to withdraw the comments after a great outcry from the public, including members of his own party. But a few days later, he returned to his original position. Naturally, I found the President’s comments reprehensible as well as many others he has uttered on matters of race in the last few years.
The question of what should be done with Confederate monuments continues to be widely debated, and the subject is certainly fraught with complexities. I surely understand why many of my fellow citizens would be offended by these monuments, but I know that many also argue that they are historical markers, no matter how offensive the beliefs and practices of that period might be, and should be preserved. Hardy Jackson, an Alabama historian, believes that the memorials should remain in place, as they offer the chance for Southerners to discuss the troubled history of the South. Somehow I can’t see that happening, but, if the monuments remain, I hope the discussion does occur.
Given all that was happened in the last few years, it was quite natural that I would return to the question of what I was to feel about the two chairs made by a slave on the place of my great-grandfather, a Captain in the Alabama Militia, CSA. While I haven’t absolutely resolved in my mind the larger question of monuments to the Confederacy, I have come to believe that the ladder-back chairs should be preserved in honor of the slave who built them under extremely trying circumstances. They are still as sturdy as they ever were, they have a simple beauty, and they serve as a monument to the pride and skill of a man who was so insignificant at the time that he didn’t even have his name recorded on the census documents of his day. But every time I look at the chairs or sit on them, I will always remember him and honor him.
Norman McMillan is a retired English professor at the University of Montevallo. He is the author of a memoir, Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood. His play, Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky, has been produced in Monroeville, Montevallo, and Mobile. His second play, Ashes of Roses, based on stories of Mary Ward Brown, has been produced in Montgomery, Montevallo, and Marion. He lives with his wife Joan in Montevallo.