Stories from Edisto Island

black and white photograph of Sam and Rachel Gadsden

Nick Lindsay

a coast under clouds

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 3, "Coastal Affair." Find more from that issue here.

Sam Gadsden

I was born in 1882. One of my earliest memories is the earthquake of 1886. I was four years old when it came through and tore up Charleston and that whole section all around here. It didn’t shake down any houses on Edisto [Island] though. It just damaged some of the big ones a little. It came in the evening of the twentieth day of August and the people had all been out picking cotton all day. My father and my two brothers came home and it was hot. After a while my mother came home; she had been over there at Mr. Towney Mikell’s plantation, California, picking his cotton. She got supper for us all and after we were done eating, she opened both of the doors of the house — it was a small house — and she put down quilts on the floor. We lay down there to try to get a nap and oh, it was hot.

Directly there came a rumbling, RRRRRRRRR! People jumped out of their houses and started to holler, “Merceeee! Judgemennnnnnt!” And they started to run back and forth to one another’s houses.

I did it too. I was four years old; I went to the door and looked out; I enjoyed that kind of doings. The earth was going this way, that way, twisty, twisty, like something was underneath. Water was springing up out of the earth all about. I liked that kind of weather.

The thing went on, it didn’t stop, so the people ran up and started a meeting at the meeting house, and they all went crazy with whooping and hollering. That earth didn’t settle down at all for two days. People would just get to work in the fields when the ground would start to twist and hump and they would run inside again. They were about to run off, but they didn’t know where to run to.

I didn’t have much sense. I didn’t know and understand what I was looking at, so I took it for a rare pleasure.

The next insurrection we had here in this country was the storm of ’93. I was a boy nearly 12 years old then. It was on a Sunday and the day was foggy. There was fog everywhere. I was hanging around the house while my father was getting ready to go to church. Allen AME Church it was, that same church on the corner where we go now.

My father gave my older brother the task to keep the crows out of the cornfield. They had been shucking and eating the corn as fast as they could go. I wasn’t needed, so my father sent me to the next neighbor’s; he had a boy my same age I went to school with. I went there and my parents went to church. A fog and a stillness were on the whole creation.

The neighbor’s boy said, “Let’s go over to Mikell’s,” that was a couple of miles west. And the trees were so still! We played there a while then we went to play with my cousin two miles east of us. Then they each went about their business and I was alone there at my cousin’s house. Then the fog began to get heavier and heavier, and it began to fog-rain. I was in the house looking out when it started to windstorm, Ohhhh! Oooooooooh! Ooooooooooooh! And it started to rain steadily.

There I was, all by myself. I looked out and I thought how I was far away from home and nobody knew where I was because nobody had sent me there. I jumped out of that house and ran flat out across the hill in the place they call Scott’s. I got to the pond that is in the middle of that hill and all the pine trees that were around that pond were bending down to the ground. Their heads would touch ground, then they would jump back, touch down, jump back.

I was bound for the woods now. When I got to the woods, all the trees in the woods had their heads low, down to the ground. But the wind was behind me. I got through that place, I fled through that place. I wanted out. When I got out on the other side, the storm was there, the full storm, wind after wind. I went on until I got to the house of Old Man Peter Wright. He said, “Boy, you go on home.”

But I said, “Let me stay here,” so he opened the door and let me come into the house. They were standing or sitting about the parlor, but I wouldn’t go in there. I stayed on the stairs they had there going upstairs, sat right there on one step.

I sat down and watched, and the storm was real then. I looked down, and there those steps I was sitting on were starting to come apart one from the other. When I saw that, I leaped out of that house into the storm. The wind was behind me and drove me home so quick I didn’t even know when I went right past it. I had to cut back, and that one thing was like to have cost me all.

The old man had a corn house on the far side of the yard and the house was on the near side. I got into that corn house and I looked out and that was a rain! I looked across to see the house but the rain was so thick I couldn’t see across the yard. I looked back down, and in that short time that I was looking across the yard, the water had risen waist deep around me. Water had come on that last flow of wind. I made ready to strike out for the house. A flow of wind came, then went on by, and the storm ceased for one roll. I leaped out there, and the water was already almost up to my neck, salt water. I got to the house how ever I could, crawled up against it, “Knock, knock, knock.”

My old man opened the door. “Where you come from?” and he shut it again as quick as he could, but the water was running through. I couldn’t see anything; I was almost drowned. I went into the back of the house and pulled off my wet clothes, but then I couldn’t get anybody to give me any room on the stairs. They were all on there. I went on up anyhow, climbed up on the underneath side of the stairs, like you climb the back side of a ladder when it’s up against the house, hanging upside down like a squirrel. The back of the stairs wasn’t closed in with boards. I got up to the top and lay right across the step there and fell fast asleep. I was out and done!

When I woke up the next morning and looked out, everything was under water. The storm had abated. All the chickens and turkeys were drowned, all the goods — drowned, dead things everywhere. I thought I must be dreaming. I rubbed my eyes to try and wake up and I looked out again.

Across the face of the island — the Great Atlantic Ocean! Water was across the whole creation. You couldn’t see anything but ocean all about, then two miles over there, Mr. Mikell’s place still standing, one or two smaller houses, but most of them were down under the water. The tide from the northeast met the tide from the southwest and the whole place was covered.

That water started to run off then. That was a sight to see too. I thought I would die of astonishment. I never saw water run away so fast. The whole place turned into a swift-running river of tide water. Late that day the news came out. “Do you know, all the people on Joe Island drowned?” Joe Island, that’s the northeast end of Edisto, the place they call Swallow’s Bluff now. “They are all drowned, every soul. All the houses are gone.”

Peter Wright, his boy, his wife and

Edisto Island

Edisto is an eight-by-12-mile delta at the mouth of the Edisto River; nine-tenths of us who live on the island are black, eight-tenths of us are poverty and seven-tenths are confessing Christians. The poverty and Christianity are pretty democratically distributed among the various divisions of society - man/woman, age/youth, white/ black, property owner/manual worker. A demographic profile of the island population would show a large proportion of children and very old people and seemingly too few of active years to have brought forth all these children. Travel across the island; you’ll see house after house where people in their 60s or even 70s are changing diapers, getting children off on the school bus, hanging out a large wash. Shades of Abraham and Sarah! What is the magic of this place that extends the age of pleasure and the delight of child-making so far into the twilight of life?

Here’s the simple secret of it. Most of the people of child-bearing age have gone north to get some of that Yankee money up there where the money is hot, but they have sent the children home for the grandparents to raise so both parents can work in the North and the children can still get a good raising in the South. There are many advantages to this arrangement. The most important is the continuity of tradition which is ensured by a one-generation overlap. In addition to this, the children experience a tolerant relaxation and valuable placability in the hand that wields the rod of discipline. The grandparents and great aunts and uncles can view the children’s quirks and gifts in a large perspective and love them more generously, being less to blame, less on trial for the genetic contribution they personally have made than the parents are. Besides these two, there is a cogent financial advantage.

The older people gain their livelihood from three sources: gardening and small odd-jobbing, plus money from their children, plus a dole from the state welfare agencies. The state welfare agency pays more money the more children there are in the house. Each child is a financial asset in every case except when he happens to be living with his parents and they are working for a living. The official government stacks the cards against what it calls a normal household. This community has found a way to strengthen its family tradition and survival by means of the very agencies of government which have been most to blame in the shattering of the black family. They have arranged their affairs in such a way that those bonds of affection which are the most lively agencies of human g. discourse and activity are augmented by the additional impulse of nourishment and vital support. - Nick Lindsay

James Wright and his daughter — all drowned. A lot of people lived there, and the whole island was drowned off, every soul. In the years before the storm we used to go and pick oysters in the creek beside that settlement of people, and all were drowned. When the news reached us, I had to assimilate that.

Many people on little Edisto were drowned, and all of them on Whooping Island. Many communities were completely wiped out. It was the worst disaster that ever came to Edisto Island.

More people died after the storm than died in it. There was nothing to eat, the whole island stank with dead cattle. We had no time to bury them. The government sent some relief here: Missy [Clara] Barton who was giving people some clothes and a few groceries. You could get maybe a peck of yellow corn meal every week, and two pound of bacon, but it wasn’t enough to stem the hardship. The storm came in August and all the crops for that year were wiped out and the land was too salty and wasn’t fit to plant the next spring, 1894. I don’t see how the people that had no wages to help them out managed to live through that year.

The next two years sickness broke out and killed almost all the old people. They were already starved, so they got sick easily. I had that sickness then too, and like to have gone. When God is ready for you, you go. He send me back. They called that sickness ‘malarial grippe.’ It was something like influenza.

Almost all the able-bodied men went away from here to try to get wages anywhere they could. Many men took work digging phosphate rock for fertilizer in the rock mine at Red Top.

After the storm passed, and then the pestilence passed, we started in on some good times. Everybody that had come through made sure that they would make themselves a crop to live on. They had corn, peas, rice, hogs and fowls and tater plenty. They all started up again, they went into good times that year and have never fallen back into anything like the misery of 1893, 1894,1895.


Bubberson Brown

I left from here in December of 1916. That year they had a kind of depression, they call it the Panic of ’17. All the young men leave the island. Here in this neighborhood, all my friends are going. I going too. I was 18 years old. I tell the old man, “I will go down to work in Savannah. I know every corner of that place. Georgia is a good hiding place for me.”

Old man say, “Go, maybe, but don’t you run off.”

It was night, dark outside, I say, “I ain’t a run off, but I tell you I going and I will go.” Mama start in to cry. Papa, he start to cry. I gone through all that cry and I crying too. It was 12 o’clock at night when the boat leave and we gone, I and all them other boys, left out for Savannah.

I never had any trouble keeping myself in a job. I had money even though in them days is what you call a recession and ain’t nobody got no money. Been a whole bunch of us down there in Savannah and only me one been working regular. That whole army of Edisto men in Savannah and out of work, and they want to get home. Along about March I was in a notion to come home too. I had money. I could pay my fare. Sure. But what about them boys? I figure out a way. Carry a few, anyway.

I had been working down at the boat yard, work on The Cleveland — a big ship been up on the ways to fix, caulk, paint. She is the one that run regular from Savannah up to Beaufort. They must take a different boat, take The Brigantine, and make that run until The Cleveland is ready again. This one trip she would run all the way up to Charleston. That was for just that one trip and they need a crew in a hurry. Didn’t have no deck hands. I tell them four Edisto boys, “I go as cook on that boat, and I get you on as deck hands,” and in the meantime I tell the captain of The Brigantine that I could get him a crew that very evening. He agree to it just that way, them boys as deck hands and me as cook. I to prepare food and wash up the dish for both the crew and the captain and mate. “I will pay you all after we tie up in Charleston,” he said. But we ain’t study about that pay. We have it fix up among ourselves ahead of time that we wouldn’t even see Charleston that trip.

Gone to get aboard, three o’clock in the morning. Gone along the dock there — oh Lord, here he come, police! “Open that bag.” I open, he search my suitcase, look for a gun. Ain’t find none. Search and search but ain’t find him. Search for whiskey too, but I ain’t had none right then. We get aboard and leave five o’clock that morning.

I didn’t like that work very well. He had me to feed the deck hand first, feed them right there in the galley. Then there was a little elevator, a dumb waiter, that ran from right over the stove to the cabin overhead. I must pull up the food, plate, knife, fork and things on that elevator, then run up to the cabin, set their table and serve their meal. The captain say, “Any scraps, you throw them overboard.” But I didn’t do it. All that good food? The boys in the crew, they all had family back on Edisto who have plenty of use for that food. Because, you see, our plan which we agreed on ahead of time was to leave the boat just as soon as she tie up at Steamboat Wharf.

We stop at Beaufort, then we leave on from there, come on and tie up at Steamboat Landing here by 12 o’clock noon. He ain’t have no freight to unload nor load and tide still rising, so captain say we can eat there and then go on to Charleston after lunch. Go on? He did, but not with any Edisto man. I cook for deck hands, then put the things on the elevator, pull on rope and send them up, feed captain and them. While captain eat, them boys, one by one gone up the road. Walk slow, get out of sight, run home. Each man had his suitcase packed — all over the deck in that galley — suitcase, suitcase, bundle, box. I don’t think them boys could tote that suitcase up that road that fast. When I gone to serve the meal in the cabin, all those boys took off on the blind side of the cabin. They long gone. And just as soon as I finish wash them dish, I take off myself. Take my suitcase and gone up the road. I knew the time was close, but I didn’t want to leave no dirty dishes.

I jump off the boat and get to the turn in the causeway there on Wharf Road and Whooooooo! Whooooooo! The captain can blow till his arm get sore, none of us showed up yet. There was a fella going there with a mule and a cart. I jump in and he carry me home. I gone and left my wages that day. Them boys ain’t got none either. We figure we had a fair bargain, since he didn’t have to pay a penny for his crew that trip.


Legend: The Flying Affiky Mans, told by Sam Gadsden

This is an old and often-repeated story. The old people would tell it by the fire and we children would take it as a joke, as a tale for amusement. You hear it about men from Wadmalaw, from Saint Helena — all about. The two men who had the reputation for flying on Edisto were Ceasar Knights and his brother, whose name I have forgotten.

Here is the story:

Ceasar Knights and his family that came to this country from Africa had several brothers and the master sent them into the field to work with their hoes. I am told they were good men to work with a hoe in the field. Ceasar went in the field with his brother but he didn’t finish his task. Maussa sent to bring Ceasar and his brother to whip them. The overseer sent the driver to get them, but when the driver came close by, Ceasar threw his hoe up into the air, climbed up and sat cross-legged on the hoe, up high where the driver couldn’t reach him. Neither him nor his brother got a whipping that day.

The next day Maussa sent them out in the field to work again, for they were good hoe hands and the crop was making. By quitting time, Ceasar hadn’t done his task the second day. When the driver went to take hold of him to bring him and give an account of himself, Ceasar climbed up on his hoe and sat across-legged, grinning down on the driver from up in the air. Maussa got no account from Ceasar that second day either.

The third day Maussa went himself to see where Ceasar was working. He saw where Ceasar had a big fire and him and his brother and their wives and children were all dancing and making a celebration around the fire, kick up their heels and all. While Maussa watched, the fire began to make a smoke, make a big smoke. Smoke, smoke, smoke, and when the smoke was gone, come to find out, Ceasar and his whole family had gone up in that smoke. Fly out across the ocean, gone home to Africa. No more see, no more hear: two brothers, their wives and children — the whole tribe.


Lore: The Sea Bass, told by Sam Gadsden

In those inlets you could catch fish by the load at certain times. And if you went out on the beach there you could fish for sea bass in the ocean.

For sea bass you use a long line, swing it round your head two or three times, then let go, and it will sail out way beyond the breakers and you can catch those bass out there. Maybe two or three in a day — that’s a car load. Big old bass! Red channel bass maybe five feet long.

I have caught him many times out there on Edingsville Beach. By now that’s about the only place left where you can catch him, because a bass is a scary fish and the people have scared him away from the beaches further down. You can’t catch him where the real estate people have developed the place, you must come further down this way where the people aren’t mixing up the water.

I’ll catch me one about three feet long, fry that fish up, peel him, put him in a cool place and you have a month of fish there. After I get one meal off him on the table with rice or grits or something like that, I don’t want him on the table anymore, but every time I come in I get a piece and eat it dry, just so. Get a little bread maybe. Presently I will eat that whole fish. That’s the way I like to eat fish.


The Storytellers

These stories are excerpted from two oral histories of Edisto Island, South Carolina, transcribed by Nick Lindsay. The Life and Times of Bubberson Brown (1977) and Sam Gadsden Tells the Story (1975) were published by Pinchpenny Press, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, and may be ordered from the press for $4 each (40 percent bookstore discount for 12 or more), or directly from Nick Lindsay, Edisto Boat Works, Edisto Island, South Carolina.

William “Bubberson” Brown was born in Freedman’s Village on Edisto and lived there most of his life, with his wife. His grandmother came from Africa on a slave ship, was sold at Charleston’s slave market and lived at Edisto’s Seaside Plantation. Bubberson died in 1978, at age 81, and is buried beside the island’s Bethel Church, which he built.

In 1977, as his life story drew to a close, Bubberson told Nick Lindsay, “I could work in New York. . . . I have been up there and worked as a carpenter three times since 1925, but by now it’s too rough. You need a bodyguard just to walk the streets.” When his cousin tried to persuade him to live in the city with her, he told her, “No. I have just me and my wife, let us spend these, our own reposal days, at home and forget about New York. That city don’t suit me! Every time I go up there I got to send for some grandchildren to come get me. When I leave from there the last time I tell them, ‘Fare thee well, I ain’t come back no more, for work nor play.’

“This is better, home here. Me and my wife been together all these years now, 60 years. Long water run out me eye how thankful the Lord been to me! I sleep so good here, the world turn over. . . . Sleep so good, wake up at two o’clock this afternoon, I figure I done sleep around the clock, couldn’t make it out no way, got to call my wife in here, ‘Hey, old woman! Come here, get me some good sense into my head!’ She must tell me what day it is Sleep so good the world turn upside down.”

Sam Gadsden was born on Edisto Island in 1882 and died there in 1981. He is buried in a plantation graveyard where all his people lie.

“In 1973, 1 went to see him before Christmas,” Nick Lindsay says. “No, he was busy. I must come back some other time. He had built himself a ladder and was up on the roof repairing his chimney. He was 91 years old then.”

Lindsay was teaching a summer poetry writing course at Goshen College, Indiana, when Sam Gadsden died. He recalls, “Perhaps I didn’t take his dying as seriously as I should, for I had already bid him farewell on his dying bed in July of 1976. He could only talk in a whisper and was twiddling the covers between his fingers the way a person will on his death bed. But what? We went to elect Carter at the polls in the fall and there were Sam and Rachel! He got up from that dying bed to make Carter President — couldn’t die yet.”