2021 interview with Damon Fordham: “Tell the truth”
Excerpted from Drayton Hall Stories: A Place and Its People
By George McDaniel
This interview has been edited for length.
Damon Fordham. Image provided.
A native of South Carolina, Damon Fordham is a respected teacher and devoted historian. True Stories of Black South Carolina and Voices of Black South Carolina are among his publications, and he has taught at Charleston Southern University, the College of Charleston and The Citadel. For several years he also worked as an interpreter, or tour guide, at Drayton Hall. He draws upon all these experiences to inform this interview.
George MacDonald: What led you to Drayton Hall, a plantation site, to work as a tour guide or interpreter?
Damon Fordham: I started in either 2003 or 2004 and stopped in 2006. I’d been a docent at Boone Hall Plantation, so when I heard of the opportunity at Drayton Hall, I applied. My position as adjunct professor at the College of Charleston was up, and its president was phasing out adjuncts. I love history. It’s not work for me, yet jobs were hard to find. I grew up around older people who loved to tell stories about things they’d experienced. I grew to love getting up in front of people and telling stories. All of those things led me to Drayton Hall.
GM: What is it that engages you about getting up in front of people and telling stories?
DF: Number one, I’m a natural-born ham. Second, I love to teach and have been a heavy reader since childhood. Before teaching, I worked in radio in the 1990s and as a journalist and found that I could take things I’d learned and use them to make a productive difference in people’s lives. I was able to get people to understand that little-known stories mattered. Transmitting that type of information is a joyful thing.
GM: What was your first impression of Drayton Hall?
DF: I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in because it was a new environment for me. These were people who, by and large, were sort of old Charleston and somewhat on the aristocratic side at that point. Dealing with that element took a bit of getting used to — some individuals more than others. A lot of the tour was architecture based, and I was not into architecture. But the historical aspect appealed to me. I grew up in the Bicentennial Era, which gave me a superficial understanding about 18th-century history and the American Revolution. My Drayton Hall experience opened me up to the study of that century. The Civil War tends to overshadow the American Revolution, but if it weren’t for the Revolution, we wouldn’t have the United States.
GM: When you drove down the entry lane to Drayton Hall and saw the mansion in front of you, what were your thoughts?
DF: Not much at all. I had grown up here and was familiar with Boone Hall and places like that. I knew about the history of plantations and slavery and had read a lot of the ex-slave narratives and had heard narratives from my own family. It didn’t really faze me. Being on plantations and speaking about the slavery experience can be emotional, but I look at that in the same way a doctor does who has to perform surgery. It’s their job. I did then, and still have, an aversion to dressing up in costumes of that period. I did once [for a Revolutionary War reenactment film, “All for Liberty”] and didn’t enjoy that experience at all.
GM: Are there stories that illustrate your experiences as a tour guide, or interpreter, at Drayton Hall?
DF: I was happy to get to know members of the Bowens family and learn about Richmond Bowens. He was an example of what I like to do. He used his experiences to educate another generation. I have a DVD about him, “I’d Like to See What’s Down There,” which taught me a lot regarding the black experience at Drayton Hall.
I also learned the story of black Loyalists during the American Revolution. I had no idea about any of that. Their story opened a new world of study. Additionally, I became interested in going through Drayton’s diaries and in seeing how honest and open they were about slave life. Drayton Hall guides made a decent effort in telling truthful stories about plantation life. So often with plantation tours, especially at that time, tour guides were more into dealing with the “Gone with the Wind” aspects of life since that’s what people wanted to hear. Drayton Hall’s guides were more honest, and with your Connections program on African American history, they were moving in the right direction.
GM: What questions did visitors have that illustrated their thoughts or emotions about Drayton Hall?
DF: I’d get the inevitable questions about slavery: “How do you feel about working at a place like this?” I’d say, “Well, this is my field. This is what I do. I study this period.” I interpreted the site’s history to the average layperson. Every now and then, like the incident with the costume, things would cut a bit too close, but for the most part, as a historian, this is what you do.
GM: Were there any differences in the questions raised by either black or white visitors?
DF: Black people would ask more questions dealing with slavery and white visitors would ask more about the Drayton family and that sort of thing. That was understandable because people relate more to things they’re familiar with, and at that time, fewer white people were familiar with black history than they are now. What is interesting is that whites wanted to learn more about the positive aspects of the Draytons, and African Americans wanted some acknowledgement of the atrocities they’d heard about during that period. I just told the truth on both ends. I might explain how Charles Drayton did sell people and would have people beaten, which he cited in his diaries. We had excerpts right there. One thing I tried never to do is to sugarcoat things. I put it out there, and you could draw your own conclusions. I have no agenda, other than to tell the truth.
As a historian, I’m trained to deal with unpleasant subjects. There were times I would not be pleased with a few things, like the issue with costumes, and every now and then, people asked questions or said things that rubbed me the wrong way, like whether the Draytons were good slave owners. People are looking for a way out from the unpleasant realities of the past. When they asked me questions like that, I realized why they were doing it: they were looking for a validation of what they had been led to believe was decent, but it wasn’t. I told them the truth.
GM: How would you respond when people asked you about whether the Draytons were good slave owners or not?
DF: I told them what Charles Drayton himself said in his diaries — having to beat Billy or sending people to the workhouse on what’s now Magazine Street. I’d give them the facts, based on solid research. I didn’t then, and I don’t now, have a history of going on propaganda rants based more on emotion than fact. I believe in dealing in the most honest level possible. I gave people answers derived from primary sources so they could look anything up if they had any doubt of what I was talking about.
GM: In light of Confederate monuments being taken down, why should slavery-based plantations like Drayton Hall be spared?
DF: History is history. It’s there for us to learn from. When it comes to monuments of the Confederacy, like the ones in parks in Charleston, I’ve used them as teachable moments to show how they took the ugly realities of the Confederacy, as stated in the Articles of Secession, and conveniently left things out and put this false narrative out there. I use these things to show the fallacy of all of that. As for the plantations, to get a full understanding of past experiences, people need to know what happened. When they see it brought into the open, they have an easier time imagining what went on. Plantations are important for the simple fact that the purpose of preserving history is to teach people.
GM: Can historic plantation sites like Drayton Hall be used to bridge racial divides?
DF: Bringing descendants of both the Drayton and African American families together is a capital idea. People can get both sides out in the open. That’s important if we’re going to move forward as a nation. In late April I posted on Facebook about Captain John Montgomery, who was the man who not only owned my ancestors in Spartanburg but who was my ancestor. I could have omitted his picture, but this man, like it or not, is a part of my history. Even though this man held my ancestors in bondage and fought to keep them in bondage, I have to acknowledge that he is the father of one of my ancestors and is a part of who I am. A lot of Americans don’t like to acknowledge things like that, but it’s the truth. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t tell the truth.
A Drayton Hall house tour. Image by George McDaniel.
GM: What advice would you give to African Americans who may be thinking about working at a historic plantation?
DF: I would encourage them to study the era before they get into it. I was speaking to a conference of young people and was asked, “What websites should we use to learn about history?” I responded: “Library!” I said that because the vast majority of people nowadays, when they go look for things on the internet, they’re not doing that to learn something new but to confirm their biases. That’s not good research. People need to be more diligent and varied in their research. If you’re going to learn about slavery or the Civil War, read the WPA ex-slave narratives, Mary Chesnut’s diary, Gone with the Wind or Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots, which became the film “Birth of a Nation.” Even things that are slanted or written in bigotry give you a point of view that existed at that time. That way, you are conversant on both sides of an issue and can present an educated point of view. I learned from reading Nelson Mandela that when he was imprisoned in South Africa, he made it a point to read both the materials of black nationalists and of the white Afrikaners who promoted apartheid so he could be conversant and deal with them better. I say the same thing for Americans today.
GM: What questions should African Americans ask if requested to serve on the board of a plantation site?
DF: I would ask, “What point of view are you trying to promote? What is your mission statement?” Looking at their programs, budget allocations and investments in inclusion would be useful. Politically, I’m not with the left or the right. I’m a free thinker who wants to deal with, in the words of Jack Webb, “just the facts.” If a plantation site had an aversion to the less pleasant realities of history, there’s not a lot I could do for them. Investing in programs of diversity and all that is a nice idea, but you must be cautious. A lot of organizations do things like that because it’s trendy, so I wouldn’t consider that as the main criterion for my joining a board. I would focus on how they do things on a day-to-day basis to see the realities of an organization.
GM: What do you see as the future of historic plantation sites?
DF: That remains to be seen. Now is a time of confusion because you have people who are against historic plantation sites, but that movement is so lacking in solid direction and clear agendas that it’s going to be relatively short lived. If you’re going to have a movement, you can’t base it on emotionalism alone and simply say that we’re going to get rid of Aunt Jemima pancakes, the Cream of Wheat man and all these other things. Okay. So what are you going to do that’s going to make a genuine, positive difference in society, as opposed to a Facebook rant of the week? If you can’t answer that question, I’m not interested.
A lot of what’s going on now, while some of it is productive, will run its course. These things tend to come and go in cycles. In the past, movements have been specific about things that needed to be changed, whereas today I see things as going all over the place emotionally. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing. It would be good to have scholars, like Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who are very knowledgeable about these things deal with genuine timetables and specific goals.
Right now, there’s a lot of hostility toward these historic places because of the current social and political climate. I hope leadership will be developed to take plantations in a positive direction to improve the display of them.
I definitely want to say Drayton Hall has enriched me by enabling me to learn more about a period in history I knew little about. My college major was not African American history. It was U.S. history, post-Reconstruction. It was through Drayton Hall that I learned to be conversant in the pre-Civil War history of America, and that has helped me in innumerable ways.
A resident of Summerville, S.C., George McDaniel was executive director of Drayton Hall from 1989 to 2015 and is now president of McDaniel Consulting, LLC, a strategy firm for communities and historical organizations.