The ‘Gray Room’ has seen its share of serious conversation

6 mins read

It’s Sunday morning and I’m in our “Gray Room.” We call it that because the walls are painted gray and it comes with 8-foot-tall bookshelves — also painted gray.

The room has a working fireplace and, today, a small fire.

The wall behind the hearth has several portraits; and my wife found a black and red oriental rug that covers most of the hardwood floor. The resulting effect, especially when there is a fire, is intimacy.

During our tenancy, the “Gray Room” has hosted dinner parties, birthdays, wedding receptions and aspiring politicians seeking campaign contributions.

But this morning, my mind goes back 136 years to John and Pamelia Mardenborough — the African-American couple who built this room and this house in 1883.

I want to believe that they sat in this very room, in front of the same hearth where I am writing this column, talking about the issues then in play in Port Royal. But while these two people sat and talked in this room, times were troubled and turbulent for African Americans living in Beaufort County.

In 1876, a former confederate general, Wade Hampton, had been elected Governor of South Carolina defeating Daniel Chamberlain and the Republican/Reconstruction government that had ruled the state since the end of the Civil War. This was, in a real sense, the return of white rule in South Carolina.

Wade Hampton was a moderate — the old general favored equal access to education and opportunity for both races — and he had won with the help of 17,000 black votes.

I don’t know how John Mardenborough voted in 1876, or in 1878 when Wade Hampton was re-elected, but I’m willing to bet that he voted for Hampton and against the Republican Party that was then the Party of Abraham Lincoln — the Great Emancipator.

I’m not certain about Mardenborough’s votes — a vote for Hampton seems counterintuitive — but I do have the Congressional Record which quotes John Mardenborough as saying, “The reason for colored men joining (Wade Hampton’s) Democratic Party is that taxes are low, and less than they were during the Republican Administration in this State; another reason is that they get good treatment in Beaufort County in particular, and the juries are composed equally of white and colored men …”

The notion that African Americans got “good treatment in Beaufort County” is shocking to me — and surely John Mardenborough had no way of knowing what was coming in the person of Ben Tillman — but then Mardenborough’s sworn testimony takes exception to Robert Smalls and his strong-arm campaign tactics.

“Smalls in his speech spoke of the existence of colored Democrats in Port Royal; could not see how one who had been a slave could vote for a Democrat; spoke of the barbarity of slavery; spoke of slaves being badly whipped; told them about workhouses and stocks; tried to picture to the young men the horrors of slavery …”

Mardenborough is critical of Robert Smalls’ efforts to influence young black men, but is even more critical of his effort to influence unmarried black women, quoting Smalls as saying, “‘If the man courting you votes for a Democrat do not marry him; get rid of him right off; he is not fit to be a husband.’ He told them if he (Smalls) was not elected they would lose many of their rights; told the women all depended upon them; and to see that the men voted for him.”

Mardenborough goes on to claim that Smalls was indicted for taking a bribe and was considered by his colleagues to be unfit to be in Congress.

It’s clear that Robert Smalls and John Mardenborough were rivals; and surely that unhappy enmity was one of the topics discussed in front of this fire. When Ben Tillman became governor and Mardenborough (probably) lost his right to vote, or when he lost his right to sit on a jury, there must have been bitter conversations whether to stay in Port Royal — perhaps they even reconsidered their earlier plans of emigrating to Liberia.

My wife and I have had our own discussions in front of this fire — discussions about our son’s future; our finances, the development of the Port of Port Royal.

But somehow I don’t think that our talks were as difficult, or as existential as those of John and Pamelia Mardenbororough in 1883.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. Email Scott at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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