The day before a white supremacist murdered members of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, my husband and I traveled to St. Helena Island, South Carolina. We sat on separate rows in the wooden chairs of Penn Center’s presentation room, chairs folks cleared of purses and paper fans and insisted we take when we came in late. The next day, images of the woman patting the seat for me, the man shuffling his knees to the side for me to pass, the welcoming smiles—they fused with the images of Reverend Clementa Pinckney I saw on the news. What had he said on his last night? Maybe, Have a seat, son. Here, use my Bible.
At Penn Center, my husband and I were two of four white bodies packed arm to arm with the members of an A.M.E. church from Knoxville, Tennessee. After the speaker passed around sweet grass baskets her Gullah kinfolk wove, and after she told us of the women who’d founded Penn School to educate freed slaves during the Civil War, she started a video about Gullah Geechee culture, the Port Royal Experiment to teach African-Americans trades like shoe cobbling and canning, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s visits in the 1960s.
The woman beside me, she tapped my thigh, almost laughing as she whispered, “I can’t see over your husband’s head.” His head was freshly shaved, the skin pale through the stubble and shining against the unpainted wood boards of the room like a chunk of chert in clay.
Overhearing, he shuffled low against the back of his chair, earning a squeeze on his shoulder from my neighbor. It was the day before the shooting, and we toured the museum after the presentation, pausing at the paintings by Sam Doyle. We stopped at the placard for St. Helena’s own who’d fought with the same Union force that had taken the island from the white plantation families. We asked aloud how free they’d really felt with strange-speaking soldiers parting the cord grass of their island with muskets. Had the Union soldiers automatically replaced the residents’ homespun with military-issue wool and munitions, or did these newly freed men have a choice?
Penn Center serves as a gateway to St. Helena. Before we headed further onto the island, we bought a painting by Reverend J.F. Simmons, a local artist, then drove to the colonial-era chapel Sam Doyle maintained in the same years he painted his own version of the island’s history on tin roof scraps. Doyle painted his people: Dr. Buz, Rocking Mary, LeBit, and Dr. E, all kin to those folks who’d first learned letters and blacksmithing at Penn School. We stopped at the chapel, a tabby skeleton surrounded by gravestones worn anonymous over time. Then we drove Land’s End Road under moss hanging like torn crab nets from stands of live oaks that surely grew there when the island was nothing but a couple of Big Houses, cotton fields, and slave shacks, and we wondered how well the Port Royal Experiment had worked with the Southern whites bearing down on Penn School’s people for a century more, like Civil War-era frigates and gun ships.
A sudden T sent the road left and right between two rows of beach houses and, unsure of which direction to take, we stalled at the intersection. We watched a white woman settle into a chair on a thin lip of beach between piers reaching like tongues for the salt of Port Royal Sound. We chose the road to our right then parked outside Fort Fremont and followed a sandy footpath until we faced the Sound. The moss-covered ruins of Fort Fremont rose around us, its concrete structures built three decades after the Civil War—and by what color hands? We looked out over a beach of oyster shells like spoons that’d lost their handles to the water’s restlessness. We didn’t see one black resident, not until we drove past the homes on Sam Doyle Drive slicing the island at its center.
When we left St. Helena Island, we followed Sea Island Parkway through Frogmore and into Beaufort where we visited my husband’s elderly aunt and uncle. We strained to hear them over the drone of CNN, the anchors arguing about a white woman pretending to be black. “Why’d she want to?” Uncle Jimmy asked, then he assured us that the black postmaster who’d lived in his Alabama hometown, a hometown my own relations shared, had been treated well enough but left anyway. The stories he told didn’t support his claim, but we nodded our heads to move past the conversation. It was the day before the shooting, and the people we’d met from Knoxville had left Charleston that morning—the city where hate was already hardened into bullets and waiting like ice in a freezer tray. We shrugged off Uncle Jimmy’s stories believing—wrongly, as white folks are prone to—that his ways of thinking were old.
Leaving Beaufort, I unwrapped the art I’d bought at Penn Center, a square of painted wood, and I admired the chicken with a live oak in its shadow and the one sentence repeated: “Lord I am out here on your word.” I thought about faith, about Slave Bibles—no burning bushes or “Let my people go” to Pharaoh, or the Song of the Sea. I thought about Civil War muskets and shovels and backseats of buses. On the day of the shooting, I thought about that church bus from Knoxville humming along South Carolina’s coast. Faith. God’s word. I thought about times when I didn’t and future times I wish I would but probably won’t throw out my voice, my hands to say, “Enough.” Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those whose neighbors mean well but hide in shame and silence. Blessed are those waiting “out here on God’s word.”
How long must they wait?