On February 12th, 1865, the Reverend John Grimké Drayton surveyed his congregation. Would he see them again, he might have wondered, knowing that Union troops had gathered near Charleston and that the city was being evacuated? Was he thinking of his own flight to safety to his seasonal pastorate in Flat Rock, North Carolina? Was he worried about his home at Magnolia-on-the-Ashley? Was he concerned about his financial future, knowing that he had invested nearly his entire fortune in Confederate currency? Was he wondering who might look after his black flock? The rich white landowners who once attended the church had become fewer in number with the declining profitability of the area’s main crop, rice. But the slaves, representing nearly all the congregants of St. Andrew’s Parish Church, remained.
Men do not like stopping for directions. I am a man. I have stopped twice in 2014.
The first time I stopped this year, my wife, Janis, and I were dreadfully lost in Oconee County. I sighed, spotted a ramshackle store with two missing gas pumps, a huge dumpster, a brown butt-sprung sofa, and a yellow dog with puppies. I eased my Toyota into the gravel parking area, a maneuver that shocked my wife.
You ought to know my name and my life story, but you probably don’t. I don’t mean to brag because that simply isn’t my nature, but c’mon now, how many people in all of South Carolina history can claim that they were confidants to four different presidents?
What? You want another clue?
Hmm, I will offer that I had a very exclusive upbringing, but not in the blue blood sort of way you might be thinking. See, my mom and dad were slaves, I was born on July 10th, 1875 and all of that excluded me from the possibilities of an easy, care-free life. Still, I had it a lot easier than some of my brothers and sisters. I was the fifteenth of seventeen children and sort of lucky, that's the way I see it, because I wasn’t sold into slavery like a few of my older siblings. It was just the way it was back then, but even as a little girl, I didn’t want to accept things like they were. I wanted to make something out of myself and help other people along the way. That’s all I set out to do, and as it turned out, that’s what happened and a whole lot more.
Not even in my childhood dreams did I think that I would become an advisor to presidents, never thought that I, Mary Jane McLeod, would achieve what I achieved. I will stop all this bragging in a minute, but in 1932 I was named one of America's fifty greatest women. Matter of fact, I was number ten.
Now, that’s something, isn’t it? It kind of locks up the mind to think that a black girl born in 1875, in the little forgotten town of Mayesville, South Carolina could escape the back-breaking cotton fields and go on to earn the respect and admiration of four different presidents, and even that is not the whole story.
Less than 10,000 people live in Allendale County which suited me just fine, for it made it far less likely that anyone watched me step over a fence, snag my jeans on barbed wire, and fall to the ground in a sloppy, disorganized, unmanly sort of way. After making sure that my vitals were intact and that my camera still clicked, I walked about 50 yards to photograph one of our state’s 1400 or so National Historic Register Landmarks, in this case, the Smyrna Baptist church.
In the fading pastel light of a Sierra Nevada winter afternoon, I park my car, grab my jacket and walk toward a distant visitor’s center. It is quiet, so still, so beautiful, so deathly quiet.
“Hi. How are you?” I say to the young woman behind the desk. “I’d like to visit the park.”
“The winter rate is two dollars,” she says. “We don’t get many visitors in the winter, so please give me a few minutes to rewind the movie. If you wish to visit the site of the Donner cabin, there is a path with guided signs behind this building.”
I sit and watch the movie. I already know much about the Donner Expedition, how in 1846 a large group of settlers left Missouri for California way too late in the season, how they made a series of mistakes in their westward journey, how they could have stayed in Reno for the winter but they decided to cross the Sierras in the hopes of reaching California, only to get stuck, right here. Some of the party lived, many died, and a few resorted to cannibalism. Some were selfish, but many were heroic and died so others could live.
The movie ends. I walk out of the building and make my way to where the Donner party hunkered down. It is early December and only a couple of inches of snow are on the ground, so much different from 1846 when the snows began in October, and did not quit. Today, weather experts believe that 1846 was one of the worst winters in California history.
I find the area where the makeshift cabin once stood. I see the huge boulder that served as a back wall, so I remove my glove, run my fingers over the cold stone, and in the twilight of a Sierra Nevada afternoon, I hear the voices.
I walked back to my car that afternoon, thinking that I would never again find such an evocative, deserted historic landmark, but I was wrong.