J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Oscar Marion: The Disney Version

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:

In reading about Jones’s research, I still can’t tell if she’s found documents or direct descendants referring to “Oscar Marion.” It’s certainly possible that the man thought of himself that way. It’s also possible that we very much want to think of him that way.


Anonymous said...

All press relating to Ms. Jones lacks mention of actual research. A call to the Senate Curator's office revealed that they never checked her research or claims of descent. She's certainly never presented anything for the public's scrutiny. It is surprising that one can make such claims without documentation.

There is no evidence that "Oscar" performed military duties, nor that he is actually the man in the paintings. The one reference there is on the man is not a military records, but an account of the activities of Francis Marion. Marion's memoirs do not identify Oscar as a soldier. So what source is Ms. Jones using to prove his war service?

There are several versions of paintings, and there are some that contain images of two African American men. So which one is the real "Oscar"?

Also, if you notice, she claims to be a descendant at times, and then a distant cousin. So which one is she? Collaterals really aren't descendants, just distant relatives.

Furthermore, she doesn't appear to have any proof that the man actually used a surname. She doesn't have any data on his approximate age or date of birth, nor when he died. She also cannot tell if he ever married or had children, so how does she qualify as his descendant? Does she even have documentation that Francis Marion owned a slave named Oscar? Where is the proof?

Finally, where's her family tree? A true professional genealogist would be expected to offer up a lineage chart, where is hers?

Anonymous said...

Ms. Jones has made unsubstantiated claims of descent from this slave. In some press coverage she claims to be a direct descendant, and in others, a cousin. What is the real relationship? Where's the proof? Where is her lineage chart? Where are Francis Marion's records that identify Oscar as one of his slaves?

The Senate Curator's office admitted that they never checked her research, just accepted what she presented. So why is she being allowed to fabricate a new historical myth, or does anyone care?

Ms. Jones makes an unsubstantiated claim that Oscar served seven years in the war and not only provided domestic service, but military service. There are NO records that refelct any military service by a man or enslaved man named Oscar or Oscar Marion that applies to this specific claim. There is ONE mention of Oscar as a servant of Francis Marion, but nothing to state that he served seven years in the war in ANY capacity. So why is Ms. Jones asking that the man be recognized for military service that she can't prove he ever provided? Where are the historians, or do they not care?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m seeing a lot of long anonymous comments on these Oscar Marion postings, all saying about the same thing. I get the feeling that this historical detail really matters to someone, but since the comments are unsigned we’re left to guess why.

Most of the points in these anonymous comments have already been made in the postings, so I can hardly disagree.

However, there’s one refrain that I find unrealistic and unfair: an insistence that since the name of Francis Marion’s enslaved servant Oscar doesn’t appear in military records, there’s no evidence of his “war service.”

It’s sad to have to spell this out, but our eyewitness statement about Oscar’s service during a campaign is clear that Francis Marion kept the man as a slave. It denies the realities of our history to demand that Oscar’s activities be documented in the same way as if he were a free man.

I’ve already argued that commending “Oscar Marion” as if he’d volunteered to fight for American liberty covers up the reality of his enslavement. But so does insisting that his name should appear on military records as if he were a free soldier.

It’s notable that several biographers of Francis Marion (as cited in my postings) had no problem accepting the existence, service, and of course “loyalty” of Oscar. Only when someone is trying to make him into a symbol of black patriotism do we see doubts about his existence or work for Francis Marion during the war.