September 2, 2017: The Upcountry
Having been to 44 states, I set my sights on South Carolina for #45. I was staying in Athens, Georgia for my annual College Football trip and realized that South Carolina was only an hour drive away. The closest part of the state to Athens is called the Upcounty, the region of the state away from the ocean and near the Blue Ridge Mountains.
On the morning after a rowdy Georgia Bulldogs football gameday, I rallied my friends Kevin and Wei and we set off.
It was Sunday and as we wound through the “Old South”, we played a game of “Jesus radio or Heathen radio” where we would guess whether the radio station was playing Christian music based on the first 5 words we heard. The first 15 radio stations on the dial were playing Christian music.
After winding through woods and gold courses, we reached a large lake. The state line was in the middle of the lake. All of a sudden, the road widened from 2 lanes to 5 and the trees got shorter. 4 minutes later, we saw our first Confederate flag waving on someone’s porch.
30 minutes in, we reached a town called Abbeville. I heard this was a historic town, so we decided to stop. After turning left off the main highway and driving for 30 seconds, we reached a beautiful town square configured like nothing else I ever seen.
In the middle of the square was a monument to the Confederacy, that was rebuilt in 1996. Apparently, the first public meeting on Secession occurred here in Abbeville.
They had some other interesting monuments including a bell dedicated to a very large man and a plaque commemorating a Black lynching victim. A few blocks past the town square was a beautiful house that apparently housed Jefferson Davis immediately after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant (ending the Civil War and dissolving the Confederacy).
Oddly enough, just a few blocks in the other direction is one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Churches in the world.
Another half-hour took us to the oddly-named town of Ninety-Six. Just outside of town was Ninety-Six National Monument, which preserves a Revolutionary War battlefield (didn’t see that one coming).
Ninety-Six was one of the oldest towns in South Carolina and was so named because it was 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee. As perhaps the oldest English settlement in the wilderness of the Upcountry, Ninety Six became an important seat of frontier power.
As the Revolutionary War moved to the South, the Patriots tried to capture Ninety-Six to secure control over the Upcounty. In 1775, in the first land battle outside of New England, a Patriot militia assaulted the town. The Loyalists (nobody here was actually born in Britain) then built a star fort to defend Ninety-Six. In 1780, near the end of the war, the Patriots once again attacked the town, this time with 1,000 men. They sieged the fort for nearly a month, but ultimately were unable to capture it.
Two weeks later, the British ordered the Loyalists to burn down and evacuate the town in order to consolidate their forces in Charleston.
The trail through the battlefield was a mile-long, but the battlefield itself was surprisingly small. The distance from the Patriot’s camp to the star fort was no more than 300 meters and then it was only 200 more meters to the town itself. I guess guns didn’t have a very long range. This was in stark contrast to Civil War battlefields that stretch for miles.
It was now around noon and we looked for a place nearby to get some famed Carolina BBQ. Unfortunately, every single restaurant serving American food in the town of Ninety-Six (including the town’s only grocery store) were closed on Sunday. The only places open were a Mexican restaurant and a Chinese restaurant (which I can get in LA).
It turns out the nearest BBQ joint open on a Sunday was an hour away in the city of Greenville- the center of the largest metro area in the state (although not the largest city).
Our first impressions of Greenville were positive. Like the rest of the state, the roads were in fantastic condition. In stark contrast to everything else we had seen in South Carolina, Greenville was a surprisingly big city with a beltway and tall buildings.
We pulled into Henry’s Smokehouse, which apparently has some of the best bbq in all of South Carolina. We walked up to the register. For$12, I got a 1/3 rack of ribs, chopped pork, two sides, sweet tea and peach cobbler! It was delicious.
Just down the road from Henry’s is Bob Jones University, one of the most conservative Christian universities in America. They believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. In order to live a life that conforms with this interpretation of the Bible, students have to follow strict rules. Those rules include: no alcohol or drugs, mandatory chapel 4 times a week, attending a local “fundamentalist” church twice a week, dressing conservatively on campus, not listening to popular “atheist” music, no going to movie theaters, no going on unchaperoned dates, no wearing clothing from companies that are “anti-Christianity” like Abercromie & Fitch, and more. Interracial dating was banned until the year 2000.
When we arrived on campus, we met a female student manning the security booth. We asked to tour the campus and she said sure, but reminded us that everything was closed.
They had a pretty pond area surrounding the gravesite of Bob Jones, founder of the school, and his wife. Otherwise, the buildings were quite average for a regional university of its size. Not terrible but certainly nothing special.
It was very quiet, but eventually we saw a group of Asian students wandering around. Asians make up a surprising 10% of the student body at Bob Jones (I expected the student body to be nearly 100% white). We then walked in to the student center, which had a bunch of closed restaurants including Chick-Fil-A. About 20 students were studying including a few mixed-gender pairs.
Finally, we walked over to the main dining hall. Outside was a Biblical passage about eating. The hours for the dining hall resembled my grandmother’s retirement home: normal breakfast and lunch times, but “supper” ran from 4:30-6:30 or 7.
They had a museum of religious art, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations.
Our next stop in Greenville was the Confederate Museum located just outside of Downtown. As we walked in, a group of older men thanked us for visiting and nicely told us about the museum and it’s five rooms filled to the brim with artifacts and memorabilia. They said they were around to answer any questions.
The first room we visited had portraits of every Confederate general with a black ribbon to indicate that they were killed in battle. One general had the unusual name of States Rights Gist (States was his first name). Another general named Wade Hampton then became Governor and then Senator for South Carolina. A major street in Greenville is named after him.
In another room of the museum, we saw pictures of Civil War reunions where former Confederate soldiers would meet up. These meetings went all the way up until the 1950’s! My father who grew up in former Confederate state of Florida could have conceivably met these people.
While the museum docents (members of the Sons of the Confederacy) generally remained neutral and stuck to the historical facts, there was one moment that made me scratch my head. A guide was showing a local couple old Confederate money. Among the 50 or so bills in the display case, there was one bill that was actually not a Confederate bill. It was instead a Union counterfeit printed to devalue the Confederate currency. The guide said that “the carpetbaggers tried to devalue our currency”.
Besides that one moment and seeing the items sold in the gift shop, I truly felt like the museum did a great job at presenting facts on the Civil War and the Confederacy. There is a lot of talk nowadays on what to do with the Confederate flags and statues in town squares and on state capitol buildings. The most common consensus is that those artifacts should be placed in a museum. Well…this was that museum. While I most certainly do not support the Confederacy or those that support it today, there is certainly a need to teach about this ugly but important part of our history. For that reason, I would highly recommend a visit to the Confederate Museum.
The visit here also provoked some thought as to why people continue to wave the Confederate battle flag 150 years after the end of the Civil War. The main reason is blatant racism. However, I also think that people fly the flag because they do not like being told that they are wrong. I think that some Southerners would take the widely accepted statement that “the North won the war and the South was wrong for having slavery” as a personal insult, because it makes their bloodline- and therefore themselves- feel inferior to others who descended from the victorious North. Rather than accept that their ancestors made mistakes or that their ancestors acted in accordance with a way of life that had quite different moral standards than today, these Southerns choose instead to wave the Stars and Bars as a way to fight back against these claims. I think that many people who fly the Confederate flag do not care about historical facts. Rather, they only care that someone has insulted their lineage and have constructed narratives to defend their families’ honor. It seems that family history and lineage matters more in the states that were former British colonies than in California.
Our group of three then walked around downtown Greenville. Main Street is a leafy two-lane street lined with shops, plenty of historical markers and very wide sidewalks.
As we approached a statue of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the Secretary of War under President James Monroe and a supporter of the Unionist cause, a middle-aged white lady told us “Don’t go tearing down our statues now”. This was a clear pushback to the movement of tearing down Confederate statues in public places after the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was quite surprised to hear this, as we were in the center of a 1-million person metro area, not a rural community.
We continued to stroll through the various shops (including an unexpectedly huge outdoors store) and eventually wound our way to the popular Falls Park on the Reedy. The centerpiece of the beautiful park is a 70-ft waterfall that can be viewed from a unique suspension pedestrian bridge with supports only on one side.
As we strolled through the park, I was struck by the diversity of the people. There were families of many races (White, Black, Hispanic, South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern) all hanging out and enjoying the beautiful park with the beautiful weather. Maybe there’s hope for racial harmony in the Upcountry after all.
I would highly recommend a visit to South Carolina. While the State is best known for its beaches, a visit to the interior is a window into a completely different culture from what most Americans (and probably most of my readers) are used to. Never have I encountered a region with so many cultural institutions that I disagree with.
To me, travel is about expanding one’s worldview and by visiting places that I disagree with, I can hopefully understand their perspective which will make me better informed and more compassionate. To my friends and family who look down on the South: there are many good things there and I would encourage you to visit somewhere like the Upcountry so that hopefully one day we can find common ground and become a more understanding culture.