Mighty Sweet Rice: Inland and Garden Rice in the 20th Century

Written by James H. Tuten

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Pounding rice in Orangeburg, S.C.

Rice cultivation has an unbroken tradition in small or garden plots around parts of the African Diaspora from Sierra Leone to the hill rice in Trinidad. In the old Rice Kingdom of the United States, however, where Carolina Gold once dominated, an emphasis on commercial production or plantation agriculture obscured the history of garden rice.

Although commercial rice production ended in the late 1920s or very early 1930s, rice growing for personal use is nearly an unbroken tradition here too. After emancipation, when the Gullah faced a choice on whether to grow rice, relocate, or remain in place and grow other crops, many chose to be involved in rice. They maintained a connection to rice as commercial growers and garden plot growers and they sustained tradition through their foodways. A look at small plot rice growers in South Carolina establishes a connection with that aspect of the African Diaspora not only during the era of the enslavement or plantation production in the half-century or so after emancipation but well into the 20th century. 

At several junctures, especially in the decade that we call Reconstruction in the U.S., from 1865-1876, and again in the 20th century as commercial-scale production concluded on rice plantations, rice growers faced inflection points where they had to decide whether to continue growing rice. These contingent moments further include both a choice about sticking with commercial growing or to grow rice for home consumption. Gullah people were choosing change or continuity with rice. 

Commercial or Plantation Rice Culture

First we will consider the sustained interest that Gullah people had for sticking with commercial rice cultivation. Two reasons for this were that many of them had pride in place and in rice growing skill. Before we get to those reasons I want to stipulate that people like the way a field of rice looks. Agricultural people, farmers, typically admire the visuals of their crops. Growers and even visitors to the Rice Kingdom openly applauded the look of rice. 

The aesthetics of rice fields under cultivation affected visitors and planters alike. Near the end of the antebellum era T. Addison Richards reported in Harpers magazine on his visit to the Lowcountry. “[F]ew are they who know aught of the graceful grain, living, blossoming, and ripening into golden beauty in its native fields,” he declared. He considered rice to be the “most beautiful ... of the great family of grains.” [T. Addison Richards, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1859) 721-738]

Other visitors noted the visual effect of rice and the plantation fields. During Reconstruction Edward King investigated the region as a journalist and waxed eloquent on what he found. “Beautiful were the broad and carefully cultivated acres, stretching miles away on either side of the placid, deep, and noble Combahee; picturesque were the granaries … and novel and inspiring the vistas of the long sedge-bordered canals.” [Edward King, The Great South, 436] Rice fields made a strong impression upon people in part because of the geometric shapes they imposed upon the landscape and the sharp relief that the waterways provided between every cultivated square. Often, too, the terrain and agricultural patterns struck viewers because they were so different from that to which they were accustomed. 

When a crop or commodity is important to a particular society, residents will often have festivals and celebratory events connected to the cultivation cycle. Those who labored through the hot and mercilessly humid summer days enjoyed the brief parties of the harvest season. Maggie Black recounted such events: “Den when dey ge t’rough, dey hab big supper dere fa aw dem wha’ whip rice. Gi’e em aw de rice en hog head dey is e’er wan’. Man, dey’ud hab de nicest kind uv music dere.” [George P. Rawick, ed, South Carolina Narratives, vol 2 The American Slave: A Composite Biography, 1 and 2, 59]

Rice culture required participants to manipulate land and water in ways not demanded by other crops. Judith Carney captured that well by calling rice culture a “knowledge system.” Planters came to believe that only they could manage such a complex undertaking, which added to their pride of being rice planters. Their specialized knowledge enabled them to look down upon those who grew other crops. Moreover, it added to their sense of uniqueness and led them to consider the aesthetic qualities of their land and crops.

The Last Black Rice Laborers

Elizabeth Alston Pringle and the other Waccamaw Neck planters quit planting commercially as a result of a 1910 storm. However, many African Americans continued to reside on the plantations. They no longer worked at growing rice commercially, but they continued to plant small plots of rice for their own food. On Sandy Island, for example, the all-black community grew rice for domestic consumption and as a trade commodity into the late 1940s. [Vennie Deas Moore, Sandy Island: Nothing is the Same, 2-3 ]

For the African Americans who associated with rice culture either through labor alone or by virtue of both employment and abode, the cessation of planting hastened a process of migration into other employments. Over time this migration eroded many of the plantation communities. Even so, some plantation communities lasted until after the Second World War. After 1900, with little employment left in phosphates, most black men that remained in the rural areas turned fully to timber, turpentine, or railroad work, employments previously pursued in conjunction with planting rice, cotton, and efforts to raise most of their own food. Others joined the ranks of the cotton tenants and sharecroppers, in some cases on the highlands of the same plantations where they had grown rice.

Those African Americans who remained on the rice plantations until the industry collapsed lost more than a job. Many of them appear to have stayed on the plantation because of a sense of place or an attachment to rice culture. John Rutledge served as the supervisor of the Cheves Family plantation of Weehaw outside of Georgetown. The Cheves brothers’ focus lay with their other lands, and they allowed the houses and the banks to degrade over time. In January of 1901, traditionally the time of year when rice plantation leases were renewed, Rutledge wrote to Henry Cheves informing him of the disintegration of the plantation and of his own commitment.

"Mr Speights told me that my time is up with him he says that he cannot give me any further orders … so i write to ask you if I must continue to go round the bank to look after them. Also the empty houses the hands is moving off because there is nothing to do. I myself will never leave until I die [John Rutledge to Henry Cheves, January 5, 1901. Cheves Papers, SCHS.]

Rutledge was not a singular case. Historian Charles Joyner made an important point with a quote from Ben Horry, a rice growing man born in slavery: “slavery time people done something!” They had, as Joyner made clear, a sense of ownership of the land because they knew they and their ancestors grew, cultivated and harvested the rice. Morris, also born into slavery but a man who lived well into the 20th century, told the owner of the land where he lived, Bernard Baruch, “My mammy and Daddy worked de rice fields. Dey’s buried here. De furst ting I remember are dose rice banks. De strength of dese arms and dese legs and of dis old back, Mist’ Bernie is in your rice banks.” He went on to make it clear that his connection to the plantation was such that “de ret of dis body want to be with de strength of de arms and de legs and back dat is already buried in your rice banks.” [Joyner, 42-43]

Rutledge and Morris demonstrate the strong sense of connection to the land, the crop of rice and suggests pride in managing the elegant system that produced it. Large plantations were not the only places of rice production in the Lowcountry, though. 

Upland or Interior Rice

The plantation-scale rice culture has had a number of books written about it. But that is not the only area where rice growers raised the grain. In the Pine Barrens just inland from the tidewater, former slaves and their descendants grew rice as a provision crop into the 1930s. This sparsely settled belt was less productive than the Lowcountry, and it was easier for blacks to buy small plots of land or to find tenant arrangements on largely undeveloped pine tracts. In fact, the Black Belt enjoyed a substantial increase in black population after emancipation. 

Perhaps no better example of both upland rice cultivation or the sustained commitment to rice for the kitchen exists in the Lowcountry than in the vicinity of Mars Bluff, South Carolina. In her wonderful book on the subject, African American at Mars Bluff, author Amelia Wallace Vernon interviewed a number of people in the late 1980s who had learned to cultivate upland rice in garden plots. Matthew Williamson, for example, grew rice on land that his father and his grandfather had used to cultivate rice. “The rice was a way of life at that particular time, because they made it.” [Amelia Wallace Vernon,  African American at Mars Bluff , 207]

Vernon undertook an oral history project in the Mars Bluff community 50 miles above the known tidal rice cultivation area, but still near one of South Carolina’s great rice rivers, the Pee Dee. There, up to around 1920 African Americans supplemented the sharecropping of cotton with garden plots of rice ranging from about one-third to an acre in size. They planted in low ground, trusting to rain or occasionally turning to irrigation from wells. She found at least one person who grew rice within the town limits of Florence, a medium size city in the state, all the way up to 1939. [101] Some grew wetland and some dryland rice. All grew it for their own table or to share with friends and family. But in general rice growing declined in the 1920s as a generation died or others moved away as part of the great migration of African Americans out of the South.

Vernon believes her subjects didn’t eat the rice they grew. I find that unlikely. She does see it as an African Diaspora cultural survival. Rice was perceived as only having marginal cash value and was grown on otherwise unused lands, so a sharecropper could grow some and keep it all. There are signs that rice had been grown as a tertiary provision crop in Mars Bluff during slavery. They ate some and sold some. They kept planting it, because “that skill … had set them off as special and had given them a degree of autonomy…”[125-128]

Though rice growers in the Pine Barrens did not always make the grain central to their foodways, rice did carry some of the same symbolic content that it had in the Lowcountry rice kingdom. Vernon’s research suggests that whites, more than blacks, maintained a rice kitchen around Mars Bluff. The African Americans in the area that raised rice, but only occasionally ate it, grew it because it conferred status upon them as farmers. In other words, African Americans, like white rice planters, gained some degree of self-respect and status from the greater technological and agricultural complexity involved in growing rice as opposed to cotton or corn.  [Vernon, African Americans at Mars Bluff, 127-128]

Another method for getting at the production of rice for home use is the Census of Agriculture. For my purposes here I focused on the data for 1934 and 1939. The old rice plantation counties still had many small, non-commercial rice growers during the Great Depression, a decade to a quarter century after commercial-scale cultivation ended. For example, Beaufort County had over 400 farms reporting rice on a total of 380 acres. That indicates small plots of an acre or less in. Similarly, Charleston had 379 farms amounting to 323 acres of rice. The figures for broadly uniform for the old coastal counties. 

Rice Production in Rice Kingdom, 1934

BeaufortBerkeleyCharlestonColletonDorchesterGeorgetownJasper
407 farms223379324125174433
380 acres208323422166329872
1294 bbl6681448115441422992566

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

What the Agriculture Census also shows is a precipitous decline in the garden plot rice during the Great Depression. Five years later, in 1939, the number of rice farmers, acres and barrels grown had fallen by half or more in each county. 

As important for us to notice, though, is the inland rice production by small farmers. The chart on inland counties reveals that in 1934 Orangeburg County, pretty far inland, grew more rice than two of the counties in the rice kingdom. These were mostly small-scale growers continuing a tradition of inland production in the pine belt that had existed at least since Reconstruction. Research by Coclanis and Marlow shows that the rice growers were nearly evenly divided between black and white rice growers. 

Although the agricultural census quit recording such small non-commercial levels of production in 1940, that is not positive evidence that no one grew rice anymore. A broad and concerted effort to document inland garden crops of rice just might reveal but a short break in rice growing. For example, to my surprise I recently learned that African-American farmer Snowden Buckner routinely planted a quarter acre of rice along the Salkehatchie Highway in Hampton County into the middle 1950s. [Henry Tuten interview, 1-29-17]

Regardless of race, the dominant place of rice eating — the rice kitchen— and rice growing re-shaped society so that after emancipation both members of the African diaspora and white South Carolinians had rice as part of their agricultural and culinary heritage. That is why they kept growing it for another 70 years or more. 

Rice Production Inland Counties, 1934

BambergClarendonHamptonHorryLeeOrangeburgWilliamsburg
29 farms691247652334129
38 acres78215684651997
73 bbl1645632101021012237

Source: U.S. Census of Agriculture 1940

Over the years between 1865 and 1940, one-time rice growers repeatedly asked themselves whether their economic interests, the lack of civil rights, and the allure of cities in the South or the North amounted to enough of an invitation to migrate from country to town and out of the region altogether. Migration certainly meant an end to personal rice production. A second choice was whether to keep or to let go of the rice kitchen. For those who moved to New York, Chicago, Detroit, or Los Angeles, some chose to let go of some elements of that rural past and other Americans, white and black, denigrated migrants’ dialects and culinary cultures and encouraged conformity to mass culture. Emory Campbell wrote of the “masking of Gullah culture” both outside the South and even among fellow African Americans when in Savannah. In some cases shame of being rural in a society promoting urban superiority, a desire to embrace modern lifestyles and move away from the past led to abandonment of rice eating" as some of us will tend to divorce ourselves from rice meals,” Campbell observed, “except an occasional Chinese rice dinner.” [Campbell, 287]

It seems that most African American families in the Lowcountry, however, did keep a Rice Kitchen and continue to rely on rice as their staple food up to the present day. While a corn-based diet predominated in much of the cotton South, Ben Horry stated that on the plantation where he labored as a slave they “never have much grits…have fine rice.” [Rawick, Supplement, Series 1, Volume 11, 197.]

Likewise, for Gabriel Washington, born into slavery on a rice plantation, gardening included rice that he ate every evening as late as 1939. [Charles Von Ohsen, “Gabriel Washington: Life History” South Carolina Writer’s Project (c-10 SC, Box 2)] Maggie Black, another interviewee, noted the difference between the brown rice pounded on the plantation and the bleached rice she bought in the 1930s, remembering “it wuz mighty sweet rice, honey, mighty sweet rice.” [Rawick, SC 1&2, 59]

Many black families such as Smart-Grosvenor’s maintained their culinary traditions despite migrating out of the Lowcountry. Vertamae Smart-Gosvenor, born in the Lowcountry, wrote as recently as 1970, “And speaking of rice. I was 16 years old before I knew that everyone didn’t eat rice every day. Us being Geechees, we had rice everyday. When you said what you were eating for dinner, you always assumed that rice was there.” Today the South continues to be a major market for rice and most of the major rice markets are east of the Mississippi River. White families that left the area also kept this link to their heritage. [Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, Second ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992). 6,7-10.] 

Similarly, Emory Campbell, born and raised on Hilton Head and long-time leader of Penn Center recalled of growing up that to be Gullah meant he assumed he would always have “an affinity for rice dishes; rice was a part of every dinner meal (…) sometime eaten with okra, ‘matoes, and prawns.” [Emory Campbell in Phillip Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry, 283-4] Alexander Small put his attachment to a rice kitchen in this context: 

Since daddy was a Geechee in the truest sense, no meal could be served without fluffy Carolina long grain rice. (I’d seen him leave the table, refusing to come back, until my mother, who was trying to break the habit, made him some.) [Alexander Smalls and Hettie Jones, Grace the Table: Stories and Recipes From My Southern Revival 3.]

The Great Depression and World War brought many changes — and here I speculate — that the decline in rice cultivation in the 1930s is attributable to multiple causes including seed rice becoming harder to attain, land ownership loss during the depression, the disruption of the war and the economic boom afterward with lots of cheap rice.  I suspect these factors worked together to bring about the decline. Today though, small rice growing has begun a rebound thanks in no small part to the work of David Shields and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, and chefs such as BJ Dennis who value local and heritage ingredients and from whom many others of us take our cues about food.