The College of Charleston’s latest digital exhibit solves a nearly 90-year-old history mystery.
In 1929, a memoir was published under the pseudonym “Sam Aleckson.” Titled Before the War and After the Union, it chronicled the author’s life from his earliest memories of being enslaved in Charleston to his post-Reconstruction move to Vermont.
Save for family members, the author’s true identity remained a secret. Until now.
The author is Samuel Williams, a Charlestonian born in 1852. His life and work are featured in a new digital exhibit hosted by the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI), the interpretive arm of the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL).
The exhibit, Samuel Williams and His World: Before the War and After the Union, weaves together Williams’ memoir and original archival research, tracing the author’s life as he experienced the upheavals of slavery, the Civil War, and relocating his family far from their Charleston roots. Students Colby Causey and Ashley Hollinshead from the College of Charleston-Citadel Graduate Master of Arts in history program provided administrative and curatorial assistance for the exhibit.
“The story of Samuel Williams is uniquely American but also uniquely South Carolinian,” says Susanna Ashton, the exhibit’s author and professor and chair of English at Clemson University. “He left South Carolina and its tremendous memories of pain and suffering behind him when he moved north. But he held onto a lot of love for both black and white families he knew as well as a fierce affection for Charleston.”
Ashton adds, “He always remained a South Carolinian. In a rather surprising and touching way his life – which spanned centuries, generations, and states – demonstrates how our nation is always entwined, and how none of us can afford to see ourselves as uninvolved or indifferent to one another.”
In addition to a narrative overview, interactive timeline, and plethora of primary sources, the exhibit features a rare portrait of Williams previously held in the private collection of his descendants.
“The exhibit on Samuel Williams touches on so many aspects of Charleston and Lowcountry history,” says Leah Worthington, digital projects librarian at the College. “From plantation to urban slavery, and from slavery to freedom, the story of Samuel Williams provides a window into how major historical narratives were experienced by a single person.”
Featured image: Samuel Williams (main image) circa 1940 pictured with grandson Walter G. McClain (lower left) circa 1980. Image courtesy of the McClain family.