Revisited Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington.

March 26, 2018

Thanks to Sarah Uthoff who sent me this link and suggested it would make a good addition to the blog. Credit for the research goes to David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He writes, in part:

The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy’s devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the ‘Faithful Groomsman’ to stand in Graves’s honor at the general’s estate in Mount Vernon, [Baltimore].

I have heard this account from many African Americans and it is frequently cited on Internet sites. It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded that “the story is apocryphal; conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate [in Baltimore] was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a ‘jockey’ statue on the grounds. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point.” 

Yes, this is a myth. For details read David Pilgrim’s entire footnoted (and very interesting!) research paper, see www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/july08/index.htm

 

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Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

January 14, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

 

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

  3. Hanley, Kevin says:

    Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

    BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

    Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

  4. i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.


Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

May 6, 2016

519Qj41qP2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Myth #55 was in the news this week, with the announcement that Harriet Tubman was going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. The Washington Post ran an article by Kate Clifford Larson, the author of an acclaimed biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. In the article, Larson debunks 5 myths about  Tubman in much the same way we did when dealing with our Myth #55. (Read the entire Washington Post article here.) Here is what Larson says about the quilt code: 

Myth #3: She [Tubman] followed the quilt code to the North.

This myth is a staple of school curricula. Students are taught that slaves and free people stitched secret, coded directions into quilts and then hung them outside at night to help guide freedom seekers to the next safe house. While it is a pretty story, it has no basis in fact, and it tells us nothing about the real heroes and actual workings of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the quilt designs claimed by proponents of the quilt code were not even created until after the Civil War and slavery ended. Enslaved people would not have had access to the multiple varieties and colors of fabrics needed to construct such quilts, nor would they have placed precious bedding outside when it would have been badly needed inside their homes. We also know that Underground Railroad routes changed frequently because of the danger involved, so something as permanent as a quilt pattern would have been of limited use, anyway.

Rather than quilts, Tubman depended on her great intellect, courage and religious faith to escape slavery and then go back to rescue others. She followed rivers that snaked northward, and used the stars and other natural phenomena to guide her. She relied on sympathetic people, black and white, who hid her, told her which way to go and connected her with other people she could trust. She wore disguises. She paid bribes.

When leading her charges, she would alter the tempo of certain songs, “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land,” or mimic the hoot of an owl, to signal whether it was safe or too dangerous to reveal their hiding places. She also used coded letters. In December 1854, for instance, she had a letter sent to Jacob Jackson, a literate, free black farmer and veterinarian, instructing him to tell her brothers that they needed to be ready to “step aboard” the “Ol’ Ship of Zion.” In other words, she was coming to rescue them.


Revisited Myth # 80: Slaves were made to whistle as they walked between the kitchen and the house carrying food, to make sure they didn’t sample the food on the way.

April 10, 2016
Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

Tuckahoe Plantation kitchen and walkway

The “Whistle Walk” story is related at many Southern plantations where the kitchen is located apart from the main house. It is an imaginative tale, but one with little logic to support it and no actual documentation. Let’s face it, the slaves who cooked and prepared food in the detached southern kitchens could easily have (and surely did) tasted and eaten the food inside the kitchen without anyone being the wiser. 

One historian who spent her life researching topics involving women’s work and home life wrote in 1986 that she had never found any contemporary references that the walkways connecting outside kitchens with inside dining rooms were called “whistle walks.” The earliest known written reference comes in 1954 in the book, Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia 1850-1900 in Contemporary Photographs, where a picture of a plantation kitchen from the 1890s carries a caption that mentions the story.

“I suspect the story is apocryphal,” wrote late Patricia Gibbs, “or perhaps depicts a mid-to-late nineteenth-century practice. Certainly if it really occurred, it was never so widespread as interpretations in many southern historic house museums imply. On the other hand, I think it is quite likely that food en route to the dining rooms was occasionally sampled. Since there is much reliable information to convey about foods and serving practices, I would discourage repeating this story.”

Good advice.

Thanks to Bill Backus, Historic Interpreter at Ben Lomond Historic Site/Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park in Prince William County for asking about this story.

Previous comments:

Megan says:
February 26, 2012 at 10:18 am (Edit)
I never thought this story made sense for slaves or servants. Weren’t they the ones preparing the food in the kitchen, and could taste it there?

marymiley says:
February 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Edit)
Excellent point. And so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it!!

Mark A. Turdo says:
February 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm (Edit)
My Italian-American father used to tell me his immigrant father made him whistle when getting wine from the cellar. It was always a cute story, but I suspect that’s all it is. Thanks for sharing this.

Michael Comer says:
April 10, 2012 at 4:52 pm (Edit)
I wonder what happened if they couldn’t whistle?

amst418 says:
October 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm (Edit)
Who is the historian you refer to in this post? I recall reading something to this effect but cannot find the source. I “googled” whistle walk and found your excellent site!

Mary Miley Theobald says:
October 26, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Edit)
The historian I referred to was Patricia Gibbs, who spent her entire career (I think) at Colonial Williamsburg and was the acknowledged authority on so many subjects, among them women’s issues. She died a few years ago, shortly after she retired, and I miss her very much. She had the answer to everything!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm (Edit)
Thank you for the quick reply. Indeed, it must have been Gibbs. I recently spent a month on fellowship at CW and I’m sure I came across her work there. Thanks!

amst418 says:
October 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Edit)
one more thing: do you know the citation for the quote? I have a ton of files that I copied while at CW. Was it from an internal report for the preservation folks?

Mary Miley says:
October 27, 2012 at 8:30 pm (Edit)
It came from a letter dated 9/2/86 that is in the Research Query file at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg.

Esther Hyatt says:
November 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm (Edit)
I visited Berkley Plantation for the 51st celebration of the first Thanksgiving on November 4, 2012 and the tour guide reported the tale of the whistling slave tunnel as if historical fact. Even more interesting were the responses of the tourist agreeing that the practice was not only clever but efficient because it alerted those in the main house of their meal’s arrival. I dismissed the story as true when I couldn’t figure out how the sound would travel from underground through winter’s closed door and pierce a home constructed of several layers of brick.

 


Revisited Myth # 62: Everyone was killed at the Alamo.

November 1, 2015

Alamo

“Remember the Alamo!” became a famous battle cry.

We may remember the Alamo, but we don’t remember who died there. The battle of 1836 was a victory for the Mexican army under General Santa Anna, whose soldiers killed all the Texans who fought against them. But many other men, women, and children in the fort were spared. Historians argue about the exact number—was So-and-so still there or had he left before the final battle?—but it seems that two or three African-American male slaves were spared as were many wives and children of the defenders. And yet, I read a couple of years ago in a textbook intended for Virginia fifth-graders that “everyone at the Alamo perished,” so I’m afraid the myth is still running rampant. 

The official Alamo website tries to correct this: “It is true that nearly all of the Texans under arms inside the fort were killed in the March 6, 1836, attack. However, nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The survivors also included Joe, the slave of William B. Travis. The best-known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.”

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson


Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

August 21, 2015

images-3

Few history myths have origins so recent or so clear as the quilt code myth. We know who started it, who publicized it, and who is profiting from it. We also know the overwhelming body of evidence against it. This myth caught on quickly, thanks in part to teachers and librarians looking for an imaginative way to teach children about slavery, especially during February (Black History Month).

If you haven’t heard this humdinger, it focuses on quilt patterns that supposedly contained secret messages that would guide slaves along the Underground Railroad route. For instance, the Monkey Wrench pattern, when displayed on a line in the slave quarters, supposedly meant “Gather up tools and prepare to flee.” Quilt experts, academic historians, and museum curators all over the country have exposed this myth as a hoax. None of the various claims have been substantiated, and all are contradicted by facts, for instance, several of the quilt patterns that are supposed to have had hidden meanings didn’t even exist before the Civil War. (The Dresden Plate design is late 19th century; the Wedding Ring, pictured above, dates from 1920.) The examples of slave-made quilts with the secret code are all recently made; no independently-documented example has ever been found. Firsthand accounts from people like Harriet Tubman and other slaves (some of which were collected in the 1930s by WPA writers), do not mention anything about this quilt code, even when referencing quilts, as Tubman did.

Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and expert on Harriet Tubman, the former slave who returned to Maryland again and again to help friends and relatives escape, wrote, “She (Tubman) never used the quilt code. The quilt code is another myth created in the last 20 years. It is not true and everyone should know that. The truth is people who ran away used their great intelligence and took great risks to flee, and they used networks of people who were willing to help. Some people did not get any help; they just ran away and got to freedom on their own.”

This persistent fairy tale is too profitable to kill off. It has spawned several children’s books, a money-making lecture circuit, sales of quilt-code designs to quilt makers, and sales of quilts to tourists. It is even—horror of horrors—morphing into other cultures. Someone has claimed that Native Americans made coded quilts, another that German Jews made coded quilts to warn others about Nazis. All such stories have been debunked by reputable experts who have, on occasion, been accused of racism when they dared to point out the fallacies. 

There is a lesson here—If you want to start a history myth, be sure to include the word “code” or “secret” in it. This is guaranteed to get you lots of attention, as we are all suckers for secret messages, conspiracies, codes, and plots.

Over the years, Leigh Fellner has researched and written an exhaustive, impressive rebuttal of the quilt code myths that you can read in its very interesting entirety at www.ugrrquilt.hartcottagequilts.com.


Revisited Myth # 40: Most men wore wigs in colonial America.

March 1, 2015

images-1

Most men did not wear wigs. Even if they had wanted to, it was a very expensive fashion accessory! Not all those who could afford to wear a wig did so (George Washington, for example). Many preferred to arrange and powder their own hair.

But the myth lives on. In fact, I came across it in a 5th-grade history textbook that I was asked to review for the Virginia Department of Education where it said most men wore wigs. It was one of five myths–and many, many other errors–that I found in the book (which was immediately pulled from classrooms). No wonder these myths refuse to die! 

So how many men wore wigs? Betty Myers, supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Wigmaker’s Shop wh has studied the craft of wig-making for over thirty-five years, was more precise. “We estimate that only about 5% of the population [in colonial Virginia] wore wigs. Roughly 2% gentry and 3% middling sort. The middling sort were tradesmen and professionals such as lawyers, doctors, merchants, ship captains, and teachers. . . . Females also wore wigs, however, they were from the gentry class, thus referred to as ladies. The majority of the population was just surviving. Putting food on the table was their priority, not fashion.” 

And outside colonial Virginia? Major cities like Boston and Philadelphia would probably have had a slightly higher percentage of men wearing wigs than towns, if we assume that cities had a higher concentration of wealthy and middling sort living in them. But as Englishmen in English colonies, they were all taking fashion cues from London. 

cover_featureContrary to expectation, not all wig-wearers were white. Most runaway slave advertisements describe the clothing that the slave was wearing, and a handful of those mention wigs. (for example, Virginia Gazette Nov. 1772 “. . . a very likely young Virginia born Negro Man named DAVID, of a yellowish Complexion, and about five Feet five Inches high . . . Though his Hair is of the Negro Kind, he keeps it very high and well-combed; but, as he wants to be free, I imagine he will cut it off, and get a Wig to alter and disguise himself . . .”) And house slaves belonging to a royal governor or wealthy man may well have worn wigs. 


Revisited Myth #33: It was against the law to teach African-Americans, enslaved or free, to read and write.

November 9, 2014
Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Well . . . it depends on the colony (or the state) and the year.

During the colonial period in Virginia, no laws prohibited teaching slaves to read. In fact, Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister, worked hard to bring books and education to Virginia slaves in the middle of the 1700s. Not only was it legal, there were some free schools set up to teach African-American children. In Williamsburg, Virginia, Mrs. Ann Wager operated a school for black children from 1760 until her death in 1774. A widowed teacher, she was hired to instruct young slave children by the Bray Associates, a group of English philanthropists who paid the expenses. The Bray School, as it was called, existed specifically to “instruct Negro Children in the Principles of the Christian Religion.”

There were other Bray Schools, one in Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin praised for its good work. Nor were its students limited to boys, as was the case down the street at Williamsburg’s all-white, all-male College of William and Mary. The Bray Associates anticipated that girls would be taught as well as boys, and directed the hiring of a female teacher. “As tis probable that Some of Each Sex may be sent for Instruction, The Associates are therefore of the opinion that a Mistress will be preferable to a Master, as she may teach the Girls to Sew knit, &c. as well as all to read & say their Catechism. They think 30 Children or thereabout will Sufficiently employ one person.” Notice they thought that the girls could learn what the boys were learning, plus sewing and knitting!

Enrollment lists show that most students at the Bray School were enslaved, however, a few free black children also attended the classes which were held in Mrs. Wager’s home. The Bray School was one of several such establishments in the American colonies set up for educating African-American children. A Virginia churchman noted in 1750 that he sometimes visited three schools for blacks in his parish and hoped there would be one in every parish in the colony. Even so, the majority of slaves received no schooling at all.

But colonies differed. In colonial South Carolina, teaching a slave to write was made illegal in 1740, the year after the Stono Rebellion. Georgia passed a similar law in 1755. Teaching them to read was not specifically outlawed, since writing was the worry. Slaves who could write could communicate plans for rebellion more easily. But in most colonies, north and south, educating slaves was up to the owner.

During the 19th century, most Southern states passed laws prohibiting the education of African Americans, whether slave or free. In 1831, the Nat Turner uprising so frightened slaveholders everywhere that a slew of new laws were enacted to clamp down on slave activities. One of those laws prohibited teaching African Americans to read and write so they could not easily communicate to plan rebellion. In 1833 Alabama tried to cover all bases with its law that fined anyone who taught a slave or free person of color to read, write, or spell. Nonetheless, before this date and after it, there were many examples of literate African Americans, although never a great percentage. As historian Linda Rowe writes, education was considered by some to be “an instrument of conversion to Christianity for slaves,” and for that reason, encouraged.

Interestingly, in The Grandees of Government: Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia (2013), historian Brent Tarter debunks a pervasive myth. “A few months before the [Nat Turner] rebellion the [Virginia] assembly made it a criminal offense for any person to receive a salary for instructing enslaved people how to read and write, and it also made it a criminal offense for ‘any white person or persons’ to ‘assemble with free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church, meeting-house, or other place for the purpose of instructing such free negroes or mulattoes to read or write.’ The state’s laws did not, as popularly believed, make it illegal for people to teach their own property to read and write.” So in Virginia, at least, state law did not prevent a master from educating his own slaves.

Before the Civil War, historians estimate that about 10% of African Americans could read. Immediately after the war, that number jumped to 30% as freed slaves, young and old, rushed to learn.

Generally speaking, teaching African Americans to read and write was usually legal in the colonies and American states before 1830. After that, it was usually illegal.


Revisited Myth #26: Hoe cakes took their name from enslaved field hands using hoes to cook their cornmeal in the field.

September 14, 2014

 

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A reader who volunteers at a historical site writes, “A common statement made by docents is that the cornmeal cakes eaten by slaves are called hoecakes because slaves used their hoes as baking implements when they were out in the fields working. This, however, implies that fires were kept burning in the tobacco fields in order for this cooking to take place. Clarify, please.”

I clarified this back in 2010, saying that this was the actual origin of the term “hoe cake.” That turned out to be a mistake, one that Rod Cofield, director of Historic London Town, MD, pointed out. I revised the post then, and will summarize here.

First, a hoe cake is cornbread fried in fat and cooked over a fire. (That doesn’t mean fires were kept burning in the fields, however.) Fields were often located far from the slave quarters and rather than trudge back for the noon meal, it must often have been easier to build a small fire at the edge of a field, cook some cornbread, and find a piece of shade to rest and eat. Hoes were flat iron tools and could easily double as a griddle.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term hoe cake first appears in printed form in 1745. Washington Irving mentions hoe cakes at least twice in his satirical History of New-York (1809): Philip Vickers Fithian mentions it in his journals from the 1770s; and British soldier in the 1770s refers to cornbread: “Negroes bake it on hoes that they work with.” WIth that evidence, I thought I was on solid ground in saying that this was the origin of the term. Nope. 

But like the word “sad” in sadirons, the word “hoe” has another, older meaning. It is an obsolete word for griddle or peel, like this one:

getimage

The word “hoe cake” came not from the practice of cooking cornbread on agricultural hoes (which clearly did happen), but from griddle hoes. As Mr. Cofield states, “From a naming standpoint, the term hoe used for a cooking implement as early as the 1670s strongly suggests that when colonists baked a mixture of Indian corn (or wheat) and liquid on a peel or griddle, this food item became known as a hoe cake. The name stuck even when a hoe cake was cooked in a skillet or pan.”

Yes, enslaved laborers (and white laborers too, no doubt) did cook cornmeal on agricultural hoes, but that isn’t the origin of the word hoe cake.

With Rod’s permission, I’m directing you to his impeccably researched and documented article, “How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name.” It was published in 2008 in Food History News. It even has illustrations! It’s long, but it’s worth every minute. If I sound impressed, it’s because I am.

http://www.historiclondontown.org/files/Hoe-Cake-Etymology-web.pdf

 


Three Myths in the News

October 29, 2011

Contributed by readers:

Three myths surfaced in the news this week. Our first chuckle is the myth about myths. Here’s the article–

A billboard in Costa Mesa, Calif., is getting some attention, but it’s certainly not the kind its sponsors were hoping for.

The sign, paid for by atheist group Backyard Skeptics, includes a quote about Christianity attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But further research reveals there’s no solid evidence that Jefferson ever uttered or wrote the words, the Orange County Register first reported.

The billboard includes a picture of Jefferson with the quote: “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature. It is founded on fables and mythology.”

Experts at the Jefferson Library Collection at Monticello are constantly asked about the quote, the Orange County Register reports. Some say the former president wrote the words in a letter to a Dr. Wood, but officials cannot find trace of any correspondence to a person by that name.

Bruce Gleason, a member of the group, told the Orange County registrar that he should have done a bit more research before putting the words on the sign. (Ya think?)

This story reminded me of the George Washington myths (see posting “Myths of George Washington” from February 2011) that professor Edward G. Lengel of the University of Virginia talked about when his book on that topic was published. As the director of the Washington Papers for the past 15 years, Lengel constantly gets requests to authenticate supposed quotes from Washington, most of which have no basis in fact. 

The second item is from N. B. Hilyard. Thanks for bringing this to my attention! It comes from the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and concerns the secret message supposedly hidden inside Lincoln’s pocket watch. Fact or myth? Turns out, it’s true, or very nearly so. Read about it here:

http://blog.americanhistory.si.edu/osaycanyousee/2009/03/a-hush-fell-over-the-room-as-the-watchmaker-halted-his-work-a-partially-dismantled-pocket-watch-that-once-belonged-to-pres.html 

And the third story comes courtesy of another reader who sent this amusing article from the Nashville Business Journal of Sept. 30, 2011:

“A public art announcement that was barely noticed by some in Nashville has made waves across the rest of the country.

The Metro Arts Commission voted earlier this month to award $300,000 to David Dahlquist, an Iowa-based artist, to install art along the new 28th/31st Avenue connector. As The City Paper reports, Dahlquist aimed to mimic different quilt designs that had originally been used to guide slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

One problem: The quilt-as-guidepost tale is a myth, as many from across the country were happy to inform the arts commission.

Jen Cole, director of the arts commission, told The City Paper the installation will maintain a quilt theme but will no longer commemorate the Underground Railroad.”

 

That’s cheering, isn’t it, that “many from across the country” debunked the Underground Railroad quilt code myth. It gives me hope that truth will ultimately prevail!


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