This is my first post to BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery, and I wanted to briefly introduce myself. My name is Felicia Furman. I’m a white, middle-aged media maker from a privileged family. My ancestors owned a plantation called Woodlands and still owns most of this land today. I am linked to many descendants of enslaved people on my mother’s side of the family through my slave owning ancestor William Gilmore Simms. He was a popular 19th century Southern literary figure who owned about 60 people at Woodlands Plantation near Bamberg, South Carolina. Several families stayed on the place after the Civil War including the Rumphs, Laboards and Rowes among others. For more information about these families, go to Shared History. I am also descended from enslavers on my father’s side but I won’t go into that saga today. This post is about Llewellyn whose family was in South Carolina before the Revolutionary War.
First about the video (01:18 min) below: it contains segments of film footage of Llewellyn Rowe Hopkins, an African American woman who worked for my grandmother for 50 years. She was descended from an enslaved family that stayed on at Woodlands after the Civil War. The video is made from 16mm film my father shot from 1947 – 1975. There is no audio. Every time I see these images I have bitter sweet memories of Llewellyn. I would love to know what they bring up for you. Please include your thoughts in the comments section below.
The second video (about 03:00 min) is an interview I recorded in 1994 with my first cousin, Simms Oliphant, about Llewellyn. In the video, Simms refers to our grandmother as “Miss May,” the name Llewellyn gave to her when she first moved to Greenville, SC. After that, she was called “Miss May” by her grandchildren, friends and colleagues. The interview was conducted as part of my early research for the documentary film, Shared History. Shared History is a PBS film about the connection of the descendants of the enslaved families at Woodlands Plantation and my family. In the video, Simms describes Llewellyn’s relationship to our family from his point of view. He also tells the famous fried chicken story that demonstrates Llewellyn’s spunk and spark and, I would say perhaps, agency, in interactions with my grandmother.
Our grandmother, Mary C. Simms Oliphant, was an historian and author and very much focused on her career. Control/click on her name to learn more about her and her terribly racist history books that were used in the South Carolina public schools for decades. She needed Llewellyn to raise a third (probably unplanned) baby, who was Simms Oliphant’s father, also named Simms Oliphant. (Lots of Simmses in the family.) I remember Llewellyn doting on Uncle Simms even when I knew him as my adult uncle.
Llewellyn was often determined to have her way despite her status as an employee. I think she believed she had rights because her people had been connected with ours for such a long time. Like my grandmother, she was tiny—four feet eleven inches—and had a feisty, arrogant and mule-headed personality. I think my grandmother thought Llewellyn had rights too–that she was from the right family (my grandmother’s, whose ancestors had held slaves for a couple of centuries). Sort of a status symbol. She and my grandmother kept up a sotto voce argument throughout the day. A classic commentary between them that I once overheard: “Llewellyn,” my grandmother said to her as Llewellyn was dusting china ornaments on the mantle above the fireplace in Miss May’s Georgian home. “Please, you know I’m the only one I trust to dust those fine, antique Singleton-family urns,” grabbing one out of Llewellyn’s hand. Llewellyn turned towards me and loudly whispered, “I’ve been dusting those cups for a hundred years.”
Although Llewellyn was considered “just like family” (see my blog Just Like Family for more discussion about this topic), she didn’t have the privileges and opportunities available to me and my family. She couldn’t read and write. She lived in a shack with an outhouse. She wore a lace apron over a dress, and for parties, a little starched lace tiara. We all got along because Llewellyn “stayed in her place,” which allowed us to maintain our love and affection for her.
The enduring relationship with Llewellyn was a deeply flawed but a valued connection—at least to us. She used to tell visitors with pride—or was it anger or sarcasm?—that, “I’ve been with the Simms family for 300 years,” a statement that still haunts me today.