The legacy of slavery doesn’t just survive in America, nor even just England; its stain reaches Fife too
By Samuel Sandor
26th March 2022
Suburban American neighbourhoods often look a little artificial. What exactly they’re hiding beneath the cheap materials, over-cheery greetings and artificial-grass lawns is never evident. Indeed, more often than not it’s nothing – most people care about appearances (I count myself among this crowd), and sometimes this means a lack of substance is papered over with the veneer of luxury.
Nevertheless, when I arrived in Mooresville, North Carolina to visit my grandparents in their new house, the uneasy feeling of there being something hidden under the surface was stronger than usual. This neighbourhood was perfect. Or, rather, this neighbourhood was perfect from the blurred view of a car window. Three-story red-brick houses, white picket fences, immaculate lawns, American flags waving proudly from built-in flag-holders. My happiness at my grandparents’ new situation faded when I left the car and went for a walk, however. Up close, the bricks revealed themselves to be of the fake, glued-on kind, and to only cover one side of the house; a façade in a very literal sense. Likewise, the fences were not wood but plastic, and the eternally immaculate lawns revealed themselves to be so only because nylon doesn’t die or wilt. As for the endless procession of flags, I did not have to walk far before the star-spangled banners on display became blemished by a blue line through the middle, and it wasn’t much further still before they became even less savoury.
I felt immediately uncomfortable at how little time it had taken for the homely visage of the town to dissolve. There was something rotten in Mooresville. It didn’t take long for my siblings to start to pick up the scent, too. Various comparisons were made; The Truman Show, Get Out, and Twin Peaks among them. Though all absurdly hyperbolic, they each communicated the uncanny feeling of precarious artificiality which surrounded us all in this suburban environment, frequently praised for its ‘family atmosphere’, with Niche.com giving it an A score for the category of ‘good for families’.
The answer came to us all in the form of a street sign, ‘Morrison Plantation’; the name of the residential area. The dark heart of this town was not buried in the woods or even in the attic of an all-too-perfect house, but rather in time. The land (and indeed the money) upon which these houses were built was both gained from and used for slavery. I later found out that it wasn’t just the wealth of this area, but the entire town which was built on slavery. The founders of Mooresville were practically all slave-owners, including Major Rufus Reid, the owner of the largest plantation, who enslaved 81 African Americans across 2000 acres. ‘Morrison Plantation’ itself is named for the fact that it occupies the same ground as an old plantation. The friendly exterior of the neighbourhood belied an ugly unwillingness to repair or move on from the horrors of the past.
It was less than a year ago that the Robert E Lee statue in Richmond Virginia was torn down, but vestiges of America’s ugly slave-owning past remain in less conspicuous places, in more local areas, where activism’s arms haven’t yet stretched. Some might say, as indeed my grandparents did, when I brought the issue to their attention, that these kinds of nominal traces from history are unimportant, and do not actually do any real harm. Some might go further and suggest it would be historical erasure to take down monuments and change names of roads and high schools. But this fails to acknowledge the signalling role of names like ‘Morrison Plantation’, which pay homage to racist legacies and thus discourage racial integration. Just as road names such as ‘Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard’ glorify MLK and help make minorities feel more welcome in neighbouring communities, names like ‘Morrison Plantation’ glorify America’s slave-owning past and signal that in this community, not only is America’s historic racism not yet elapsed, but it’s engraved in stone.
It took me a few days, though, to shed my self-righteous disbelief and begin to remember again that this was not a uniquely American problem. I quickly recalled the statues of Churchill, Calston and others which have rightfully received a great deal of negative attention. I remembered the British Museum, and with even more regret, I later found out about the streets and statues of Scotland which commemorate eminent proponents and beneficiaries of slavery.
Perhaps the most infamous example is the 150-foot-tall memorial to Henry Dundas in Edinburgh. Dundas was central in slowing down the abolition of slavery, adding the word ‘gradual’ to Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery bill, which many historians, David Brion Davis for one, agree was a concerted attempt to postpone the end of slavery. This, of course, led to immeasurably more intense suffering and, undeniably, death. There have been many calls recently to tear down the monument, but nothing has been done save for the placement of a new plaque explaining Dundas’ legacy and the harm he caused. Yet his image carved in sandstone looms still over St Andrews Square.
If the name ‘Dundas’ sounds familiar to you, it’s because tributes to him are scattered across Fife. Dundas Street in Dunfermline and Dundas Street in Lochgelly both bear his name and have recently received calls to be rechristened. Lochgelly’s ‘Plantation Street’ has also received similar treatment, and served as an eerie reminder to me that Fife has done no better of a job than my grandparents’ area has. Although the council has recently reviewed these street names, no changes have yet been made.
It is easy to be appalled by moral shortcomings away from home, and these remain valid concerns, but one becomes inured to similar issues when one lives among them. Fife must follow through on its review of slavery-tarnished road names. There are those who deserve to be remembered and glorified, and those who deserve to be spoken of only in history textbooks.