As America’s racist historical myths go, the loyal black slave is one of the most enduring, destructive, and tightly held. Emerging from the white Southern racial imagination in the 1830s, the faithful slave personified slave owners’ defensiveness against a growing abolitionist movement and its condemnations of slavery, and slaveholders, as evil and immoral. The loyal-slave trope insisted that enslaved blacks labored for their enslavers not out of self-preservation and deeply instilled fear, but as an expression of love, fidelity, and devotion. After the Civil War ended in their humiliating defeat, white Southerners attempted to retroactively justify the Confederacy with the “Lost Cause” ideology, an ahistorical narrative that further reimagined the Old South as filled with happy enslaved blacks. The loyal slave became a stock character in slavery apologia from Gone with the Wind to pancake-mix ad campaigns to—perhaps less famously—a little-known subgenre of Confederate monuments. Nearly all of those overtly racist memorials still stand in sites around the South.
As with Confederate monuments generally, loyal-slave markers communicated not only the white South’s nostalgia for a counterfeit version of what once was, but also its belief in what should have been. Constructed not during slavery but between the 1900s and 1930s, like nearly all Confederate monuments, loyal-slave markers served as the visible component of an anti-black backlash against black civil-rights gains. In the face of African-American empowerment struggles, loyal-slave monuments telegraphed the idea that slavery had been the natural state of things. Faithful-slave markers also warned black folks working to overturn the racial-caste system in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that they risked the same brutal violence that had kept racial order during slavery. In fact, black defiance had manifested in 250 slave uprisings, more than 100,000 escapes via the Underground Railroad, and thousands more escaped slaves’ joining the Union Army before slavery was abolished in 1865.
Confederate apologists erected loyal-slave monuments to blot out that evidence of black rebellion. “They memorialized a narrative that undercut the myriad ways that African Americans resisted,” says Tera Hunter, a professor of American history and African-American studies at Princeton University. “It was a source of embarrassment for slaveholders that they had to resort to the use of brute force to keep enslaved people in line, because if they were actually content, why would there be a need for corporal punishment? Loyal-slave stories and monuments hid that history. They helped soothe the consciousness of those people who believed slavery was a legitimate system, and absolved the culpability of those who participated in and benefited from the system of slavery. But the most damaging work the myth did was to create a stereotype of African-American people as content with their conditions—and therefore complicit in their own bondage. That’s one of many reasons we don’t see Confederate monuments to Nat Turner’s revolt or other major rebellions that happened.”
One of the oldest loyal-slave monuments was erected in 1895 in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and today stands in the appropriately named Confederate Park. Two opposing sides of the 13-foot-tall marble monument feature bas-relief carvings depicting enslaved blacks, including a “mammy” figure cradling a white baby and a black man cutting wheat. The inscription on one panel praises the “faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity [and] guarded our defenseless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our ‘Confederate States of America.’” The most famed speaker at the monument’s 1896 unveiling was Polk Miller, a white defender of slavery who often performed black music under the stage name “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro.” In their exhaustive history of Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle note that Miller’s remarks “pitted what he called the ‘uppity,’ turn-of-the-century African American against the ‘negro of the good old days gone-by,’ suggesting emancipation had been an unfortunate development.”
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“For white Southerners having to deal with the reality of Civil War defeat and [black] emancipation, the loyal-slave narrative becomes a way to move forward, to put the pieces back together, to begin the process of putting together a system of white supremacy—especially after Reconstruction—that places black Southerners, former slaves, into a subordinate position,” says historian Kevin Levin, a Civil War expert who blogs at Civil War Memory. “By the turn of the 20th century, an emerging black population was beginning to push more aggressively for civil rights. Looking back on the antebellum period—a time when race relations were, in the eyes of white Southerners, peaceful—they were able to avoid dealing with and responding to moments of racial unrest decades after the war.”
A Columbia, North Carolina, loyal-slave monument erected in 1902 offers a note in “appreciation of our faithful slaves.” Its placement on the grounds of the Tyrrell County Courthouse was intended to send an ominous message to every black person with the misfortune of seeking justice in its halls. Across the state in Mebane, North Carolina, a plaque in the Hawfields Presbyterian Church cemetery hangs “in memory of the faithful slaves” who once worshipped there and are buried nearby. A pre–Civil War loyal-slave monument dating to 1857 stands in Marion, Alabama, the onetime home of Howard College. The obelisk describes as “faithful until death” an enslaved man named Harry who died helping students escape an 1854 fire. In an article about the monument, a local town paper wrote that Harry’s “self-sacrificing devotion and fidelity” demonstrated the “reciprocal affection between the master and the servant, as grand as any in the great annals of history.”
Perhaps no monument more overtly attempts to corrupt both history and morality than the Heyward Shepherd marker in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Erected in 1931 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the white-Southern-ladies group responsible for the majority of Confederate monuments, the Shepherd memorial was the result of a campaign that began at the turn of the century. Tennessee UDC member Mary M. Solari in 1905 called for the construction of a loyal-slave monument, declaring it would “prove that the people of the South who owned slaves valued and respected their good qualities as no one else ever did or will do.” The choice of Harpers Ferry for the location of the marker, given the generic working title of “Faithful Slave Memorial,” underscored the UDC’s reactionary pro-slavery agenda. The group had been outraged to learn that alumni of the historically black Storer College had put up a plaque honoring John Brown, the white abolitionist who in 1859 attempted to launch an armed slave insurrection. The UDC leveraged its political and social power to overrule the black community’s protests, erecting the Heyward Shepherd marker as a counterpoint to the Brown monument. In effect, the monument to fictitious faithful slaves was put up to drown out the voices of authentic former slaves and their descendants.
Ironically, Heywood Shepherd (the plaque misspells his first name), the first accidental casualty of Brown’s failed raid, wasn’t enslaved. A father of five, Shepherd was a free black man who worked as a porter on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The UDC nonetheless cynically capitalized on Shepherd’s death to serve their own racist ends. The inscription on the six-foot-tall granite monument bearing Shepherd’s name describes him as “exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of Negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best in both races.” At the dedication ceremony for the monument, UDC president-general Elizabeth Bashinsky doubled down, stating that the marker commemorates “the loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice of Heyward Shepherd and thousands of others of his race who would, like him, have suffered death rather than betray their masters.”
The Confederate ideology flourished far beyond the geographical boundaries of the South, as evidenced by the number of loyal-slave monuments north of the former slaveholding states. Thomas W. Bicknell, a member of one of Barrington, Rhode Island’s most prominent white families and largest enslavers of African Americans, in 1903 erected a loyal-slave monument in Princes Hill Burial Ground. The boulder’s bronze plaque, now green with age, announces the marker’s dedication to the “slaves and their descendants who faithfully served Barrington families.” Bicknell told the audience at its unveiling that “it would be a difficult problem to decide” if white enslavers or black enslaved folks had “been the greater gainer or loser” from black chattel slavery. (Spoiler alert: Black enslaved people lost more.) He added, “Certain it is that along many lines the negro race has been civilized and benefited by the relationship…. no other inferior race on the face of the globe could have been brought through the experiences of 300 years of chattel slavery with so great indebtedness and so little losses on both sides of the ledger.”
A more shocking example is a marker that never actually came to pass. In 1923, the UDC received approval from the US Senate—which the same year rejected an anti-lynching bill—to build the “Monument to Faithful Colored Mammies of the South” in Washington, DC. Senate Bill S. 4119 designated the proposed marker as a “gift to the people of the United States.” The then-largest black newspaper in DC wrote a fitting response to news of the impending statue, cited in Micki McElya’s 2007 Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America:
The Tribune listed a range of “insults” or attacks on black citizenship culminating in the effort to memorialize the mammy figure by “the ones who deny their [the mammies’] descendants educational facilities, humiliate them in public conveyances, Jim Crow them in public places, deny them the rights of suffrage of American citizens and finally insult their race by proposing a statue to commemorate servitude in the Capital City of the Nation.”
The project died in House committee, primarily as a result of sustained black outcry.
That UDC bid failed, but the organization had already successfully funded a loyal-slave monument nearby a decade earlier. The UDC’s Confederate Memorial stands in Arlington National Cemetery just a short distance from the segregated section where black soldiers and sailors were once interred. Amid the crowd of mythological gods and white Confederate soldiers sculpted into its circular bronze frieze are two black figures. The black enslaved woman is depicted holding a white baby, her face streaked by a single tear as her enslaver heads off to war. Just opposite, a young black man in a Confederate kepi marches abreast with his enslaver. Both figures are meant to represent loyal slaves doing their part for the Confederate cause.
“It speaks to the ultimate success of the Lost Cause narrative that on the same ground where black Union soldiers were buried, roughly 360 Confederate dead were also buried by 1914. Those Confederates are recognized with the tallest monument in the entire cemetery,” says Levin. “It was an attempt to reinforce the racial values of white Southerners in the very capital of the United States—across from the Potomac in Virginia, but in part of the DC landscape.
As Kytle and Roberts point out, “Since the end of the Civil War, southern memory-making has been American memory making.” Many decades after their defeat against the North, the white South continued to propagate the Lost Cause ideology, and the loyal slave became a fixture in American media, from Aunt Jemima ads to the enslaved black characters in Gone with the Wind to the magical Negroes of films such as The Green Mile, who sacrifice themselves for white characters’ self-actualization. Perhaps more importantly, the faithful slave became an ever-present figure in the white American consciousness. Consequently, the trope has been consistently updated and modernized to hold up America’s racial hierarchy in a way that tracks with the racial politics of the day.
The first post–civil-rights era version of the loyal slave appeared in the 1970s. After the success of Alex Haley’s Roots miniseries showed a mass audience the horrors of slavery and cast the Confederacy in the same unvarnished light, neo-Confederate groups set about searching for a counter-narrative. Much like slave owners in the prior century, they found it in a version of the loyal slave whose fidelity to their white enslavers was unsurpassed: the black Confederate soldier. Groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans have cited the enslaved aide-de-camp on the Arlington Confederate monument, along with various other willfully misinterpreted evidence, to prove that thousands of African Americans laid their lives on the line to fight for an army that sought to ensure their enslavement in perpetuity. Like every other version of the loyal-slave trope, the black Confederate soldier is a myth no serious historian believes or promotes, and Levin has dedicated significant scholarship to debunking the idea. (The historian’s forthcoming book is titled Searching for Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.) Despite the mountain of counterevidence, two South Carolina politicians filed a 2017 bill proposal to build a monument honoring South Carolina’s black Confederates. (The pushback from white nationalists angry over the construction of a marker to African-Americans was yet another ironic twist.) Both legislators, not incidentally, voted against removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after the massacre of nine black parishioners in 2015.
While the happy slave can manifest in the form of a mythical black character-type, the figure is more abstractedly embedded in the concept of slavery as a benevolent—and even beneficial—institution. Recent years have seen multiple white public figures offering unsolicited critiques of black emancipation as a spoiler of black life, suggesting that freedom has led to black pathology. According to this form of hyper-racist concern trolling, African Americans were at their best during centuries of dehumanizing white abuse and domination. One adherent of this idea is rancher Cliven Bundy, whose cows still graze federal grasslands on which he owes nearly three decades of back taxes. In 2014, Bundy mused aloud that he’d “often wondered, ‘are [blacks] better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?’ They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” Similarly, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson in 2013 wistfully recalled blacks in pre–civil rights Louisiana “singing and happy” as they worked the fields, too filled with songs and joy to complain about racial inequality. In 2010, then–Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour spoke about the conditions of Jim Crow in the early 1960s, recalling that“I just [didn’t] remember it as being that bad.” Before he was fired from his Fox News show for alleged sexual harassment, Bill O’Reilly told his viewing audience that enslaved blacks who built the White House were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government,” and were treated to meals of “meat, bread and other staples.” Pat Buchanan, never one to obscure his racism, most nakedly advanced the dehumanizing, racist idea at the heart of the loyal-slave trope—that black people should feel eternally indebted to whites for merely being permitted to exist in this country. In 2008 Buchanan wrote that slavery had been a lucky break for black people, because “600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.”
“No people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans,” Buchanan wrote. “We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?”
It’s no coincidence that these ideas have been expressed not only as the nation is growing demographically browner and blacker, but when the latest push for African-American civil rights has expanded to include calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Inspired by the success of Take ’Em Down NOLA in New Orleans, local chapters of the group and the national Take ’Em Down Everywhere movement are now pushing for the removal of Confederate iconography of every sort. The Make It Right Project, which launched in June last year, is a national initiative dedicated specifically to taking down Confederate monuments; the Heyward Shepherd loyal-slave marker is among the list of monuments the campaign is targeting for removal. (Full transparency: I’m the group’s director.) In this environment, the loyal-slave mythology continues to be a go-to tool in the neo-Confederate toolbox. As in previous eras, those promoting that fallacy aim to quash a true reckoning with this country’s ongoing legacy of anti-black violence and oppression.
“The myth of the faithful slave lingers,” writes McElya, “because so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves—of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism—seem not to exist at all.” As neo-Confederates rally at monument sites, and Southern legislatures states throughout the South enact laws to prevent Confederate monument removal, toxic myths are recycled for the exact same racist purposes. The loyal-slave myth, and the monuments put up to sell the narrative, offer a transparent view how all tributes to the Confederacy honor the dishonorable, erasing historical truth in favor of a white supremacist lie.