In New Book: Celebrate People’s History

When Josh MacPhee sent a call for art e-mail out about four years ago, he wanted a fresh pile of posters to put in his book project for “Celebrate People’s History” (just released from the Feminist Press). While Josh and I collaborated and crossed over on our stencil projects, he was always making, printing, selling, and giving away CPH posters. Josh always talked about how this project was a labor of love as well as a way to “teach” history that tended to fall through the cracks. Sometimes the posters ended up on public walls. Other times, they would end up framed on private walls. But they always educated and entertained.

With this in mind, I reached out to long-time friend and collaborator Mark Cort with an idea of sharing some of South Carolina’s lost People’s History. Being our home state, the obvious choice was a poorly documented event known as the Stono Rebellion. I found one slim history book that had all the contemporary accounts and I found very little valuable sources online, but nonetheless I wrote a paragraph of text and then had Mark draw a simple illustration for the poster.

The mock-up of the CPH Stono Rebellion poster. Text and stencil by Russell Howze; artwork by Mark Cort; edited by Josh MacPhee
The mock-up of the CPH Stono Rebellion poster. Text and stencil by Russell Howze; artwork by Mark Cort; edited by Josh MacPhee

In 1739, rumors of gaining freedom in Spanish Florida caused a group of Charleston, SC area slaves to rise up and set out on a southward path of fire, death, revelry, and eventual confrontation with appalled white slave owners. They weren’t that organized nor did they get very far, but the fact that they tried struck horror among the white landed class. This caused South Carolina to enact strict laws against what had been a relaxed slavery system. And, fearing a copycat event, the white rulers left very little written evidence behind about the details of the event. All told, the death toll was high for the times, and the murders and property damage enacted by the taste for freedom further entrenched the landowner’s sense that their institution was indeed peculiar. I guess one could assume that white paranoia over black insurrection grew many fold.

As I worked on the text a few years ago, I actually tried to find the spot where the slaves met the white resistance. My mom came along and I had no real markers or historical plaques to guide me. Asking around out in the Lowcountry just outside of Charleston didn’t help. So I never found the site but did get a sense of the terrain. As I told folks about my project with Mark, most people didn’t know anything about Stono. It was merely a footnote in the state’s Colonial history. So I continued to feel strongly that it was the right thing to put in Josh’s book.

Mark finally made the compelling artwork last year. Using limited art supplies, he managed to sketch a slave in moonlight, deeply contemplating the blood on his hands, as the signs of uprising hovered above him. These are the gun, the pitchfork, and the whiskey bottle. Mark managed to do the artwork on a folded piece of paper and he hand-lettered “Celebrate People’s History” with loving detail. I made a stencil for the word “Stono” and sprayed it. Josh MacPhee did all the final Photoshopping of the elements and put together a nice two-color poster.

Interestingly, as the last few years have passed, more information about the event has shown up online. With few historical facts about the Stono Rebellion, many sites have many different takes on the event. Death counts vary, some accounts claim that one man led the rebellion, others claim that it was an African-led uprising. Whatever the case, the resulting crackdown on slave’s limited freedoms is well documented in the colonial laws that passed afterward.

Can’t wait to see the book and the final poster print. Josh has no plans on printing and selling the individual poster. The CPH project is already behind on it’s poster releases and the project barely breaks even financially. When approached with self-funding the project, Josh seemed interested, but I do not have the $600 or so to get the poster printed. So, for now, the poster will be part of the book. Hope you all grab a copy.