- Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community by John M. Coggeshall
As the story of an extended African American family in southern Appalachia during the twentieth century, Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community works quite well. As a history of an African American Appalachian community since the mid-nineteenth century, however, it leaves much to be desired. [End Page 473]
Liberia was the name given to a rural community established by former slaves in the northwest corner of South Carolina. At its peak, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Liberia included some two to three hundred individuals, a school, and two Baptist congregations, though by the time anthropologist John M. Coggeshall encountered descendants of its early settlers, in 2007, the community was little more than a single extended family and a church with barely a dozen members. Coggeshall set out to tell the story of Liberia from the antebellum experiences of the former slaves who became its original settlers to those of its current residents. In doing so, however, he worked back from the descendants he met rather than forward from the original population. Instead of telling the story of Liberia's entire population, the book focuses on "those selected individuals and their descendants whose lives entered into contemporary memory" (p. 62). This reliance on contemporary memory helps explain both the book's greatest strength and its several weaknesses.
Its strength lies in the rich accounts provided by the author's contemporary informants. They offer vivid descriptions of race relations in South Carolina under Jim Crow and of changes that have taken place since the start of the modern civil rights movement. As a result, the book's final chapters capture in marvelous detail both the strategies by which African Americans countered pervasive racism, one of the book's two principal themes, and the broader trends marking economic and social transformations that have occurred throughout the rural South over the past hundred years. These chapters also demonstrate the second of the book's principal themes: a strong attachment among Coggeshall's informants to the land their ancestors worked so hard to secure and in which so many of them lie buried.
Unfortunately, the author's reliance on contemporary memory also creates a number of problems. First, his decision to focus on those residents whose descendants "entered into contemporary memory" may distort the picture he presents of Liberia. In anote, Coggeshall identifies thirty-four "'original settlers of Liberia,'" but he concentrates his attention on just four whose descendants remain in the area today (p. 62). Readers learn very little about the other thirty, which reduces the range of experiences described in the book. It also calls into question community members' apparent attachment to the land; if Coggeshall studied only the handful who stayed, was that attachment to the land really as strong as he suggests? In addition, chapters describing the antebellum years, Reconstruction, and the late nineteenth century often lack detail specific to Liberia. Few memories have survived among Coggeshall's informants of life before the twentieth century, and the author seems to have done relatively little research in nineteenth-century sources. There is, for example, no evidence that he consulted any records from the Freedmen's Bureau, which had an office not far from Liberia. As a result, the discussions of slavery, Reconstruction, and the late nineteenth century rely heavily on summaries of other scholars' work on southern Appalachia, in general, and on a limited number of local histories.
Liberia, South Carolina offers a detailed discussion of changes that took place in what remained of Liberia during the twentieth century. It is much less successful, however, in telling the story of the community's origins and the experience of its inhabitants during the nineteenth century. [End Page 474]