To the left is yet another popular image of Gen. Francis Marion having a meal in the wilderness during the Revolutionary War. Except this time he’s being portrayed by Leslie Nielsen (on the left, before his hair turned white) in Walt Disney’s Swamp Fox adventures, first broadcast 1959-1961. This image comes UltimateDisney.com, where nostalgic folks can order a D.V.D. of those episodes.
Marion’s enslaved servant Oscar was a regular character in that series and sang its theme song, recounting Marion’s exploits. The actor who played that part was credited as “Smoki Whitfield,” though he appeared in other movies and TV shows as Robert or Jordan Whitfield. He had a long Hollywood career, but most of his roles were as porters or African sidekicks, such as Eli in the Bomba the Jungle Boy series.
Whitfield’s screen name “Smoki” fits into a pattern for African-American actors of the time. Many white Hollywood actors adopted professional names that hid or changed their ethnic background, as when Emmanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson. But many black Hollywood actors, particularly males, worked under names that emphasized or ironically played off their ethnicity and the stereotypes associated with it. The most famous was Lincoln Perry as Stepin Fetchit, but others included Willie Best as Sleep ’n’ Eat, Fred Toones as Snowflake, and Spencer Bell as G. Howe Black.
And at last I get to my point: American culture didn’t forget Gen. Marion’s enslaved servant Oscar. Rather, the culture fit that historical individual into reassuring molds that changed along with mainstream society’s values. First came the loyal, subservient servitor visible in nineteenth-century paintings and books. Then came the Disney Company’s friendly supporting character and quaint musical entertainer. Given that pattern, praising Marion’s “devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country” in a Senate ceremony could simply shift the man into another reassuring mold—exemplary African-American patriot—without bringing us closer to understanding his real experiences.
Genealogist Tina C. Jones started to research Gen. Marion’s enslaved workers to find clues to such experiences; some of her ancestors were captive on that slave-labor plantation. Calling our attention to the black servants in paintings of Marion should help us think about what those figures represented. Reminding us that throughout the Revolution Gen. Marion was served by a real individual kept in bondage should spur us to consider what that man’s life might have been like. But we shouldn’t take the symbol for the man.
In its article on the Dec 2006 Senate ceremony about John Blake White’s painting of Marion, the Washington Post stated of the black cook, “He has had his name restored.” And indeed names are significant. Jones’s research seems to have spurred recent authors to refer to the man as “Oscar Marion” rather than “faithful servant Oscar.”
Of course, not all enslaved people shared a surname with their owners. Notable exceptions included:
- William Lee, George Washington’s bodyservant during the Revolutionary War.
- Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s servant and likely mistress.
- Crispus Attucks, identified only by his first name when he escaped from slavery in Framingham; newspapers and legal documents included a Native American surname after his death in the Boston Massacre.
- Frederick Bailey, who later took the name Frederick Douglass; he was never enslaved in a Bailey family.