FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
A once lost Charleston slave's "tag" goes underground again
At first glance, there is not much to see along the old Champion Hill Road, a forgotten rural byway between Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Though it was once paved, the route is lightly traveled now and, as a result of declining county maintenance, is deteriorating into a rough mosaic of broken asphalt and gravel. The shoulders are bordered by overgrown fields and cutover woods. Aside from the occasional pulpwood truck and here and there an illegal dump or a solitary, overgrown chimney, there is little evidence that anything ever happened there, much less that anything is likely to happen now.
But as Michael Rejebian steers his silver Tundra to a stop along the shoulder, the landscape takes on unexpected meaning — or reasserts it, really, because it was already there. Just beneath the surface, like disjointed, quivering memories, are all kinds of clues to the tumultuous past, to lost moments and lost lives and deaths, waiting to be found: buried bullets, buttons, buckles, rings and other arcane detritus — the sort of things that are not always readily identifiable, such as a lead weight dropped from the hem of a woman's hoopskirt, or what may have been a talisman that hung above someone's cabin door.
Rejebian is an independent researcher and public relations consultant in Jackson, Mississippi, who collects historic relics as a hobby. In his work and in his spare time, he is all about finding things. He does not care when some of his friends poke fun at him, comparing him with the guy dressed in knee socks, shorts and a photographer's vest who totes a metal detector to the beach in search of lost diamond rings to hock. He is intent not on finding things to sell, but on deciphering the riddle of the past, bit by buried bit. He sometimes invites skeptical friends to accompany him and has converted some of them through impressive discoveries, such as a Confederate officer's ornate brass spur, a hatpin worn by a member of an Indiana infantry regiment so far from home, an 1856 gold dollar, or a Mexican War-era belt buckle. Over the years, he has assembled a small cadre of fellow searchers and has accumulated an impressive collection of artifacts. An otherwise unremarkable site may yield the remains of a Union Army camp, where he and his friends unearth, for example, a piece of a harmonica, a broken ink well, and a lead bullet carved into a small penis — presumably fashioned by a bored young soldier entertaining his friends around the campfire. Although Rejebian always keeps his eyes peeled for arrowheads, his main interest is in the evidence of lives with which he can partially identify, which unfolded along a comparatively recognizable matrix. The Choctaws are a daunting mystery, but the people who lived by this stretch of the Champion Hill Road — in a house that today is signified by a scattering of broken bricks and an abandoned underground cistern — are at once forgotten and yet, seemingly knowable. They had children whose children's children Rejebian might conceivably meet. He is not entirely sure why, but all of this exerts an irresistible pull on him.
There are certain things that seem destined to survive from the habitations of such homes, which lined the Champion Hill Road during the last century and a half: baby doll heads, bereft of their hair, invariably with one eye open and one shut; shoe soles; slave-made bricks covered with moss; bottles with tiny natural terrariums inside; broken china and cut-glass punch bowls that, it is tempting to think, may have been used for target practice by the troops of occupying armies. These things generally present themselves in eroded patches of ground. But Rejebian is most interested in metal, which must be found. He tends to work around the larger and more common remnants, such as the crusted iron springs of beds and T-model seats, and the ever-present square, hand-wrought nails, in favor of more intriguing and telling relics. Sometimes he uncovers a buried constellation of unspent minie balls, scattered over a broad, linear path, indicating that the soldiers were reloading clumsily, on the run; or a bullet whose head was flattened when the shooter apparently made his mark.
A few miles farther down the Champion Hill Road is the site of the old Champion house, which burned long ago, and the hill for which the plantation was named, which was literally hauled away by gravel miners in the 1960s. The flanks of the ravaged hill still attract relic hunters because a crucial Civil War battle was fought there, but Rejebian is not among them; the Champion family is notoriously tired of relic hunters, many of whom trespass, traffic in their ill-gained booty, and leave potholes behind, and anyway, Rejebian has his own landowners, his own permission slips. He never crosses the line. At this, his most productive spot, he has previously uncovered Spanish colonial military buttons from the first years of the 19th century, a circular breast plate worn on the cartridge box sling of a Union soldier, a brass scabbard throat to a saber bayonet, and the heavy barrel band of a Harper's Ferry musket. He almost always finds something, and on this particular day, chances to discover something truly new and remarkable.
As he wanders the brambles with his White's metal detector, listening to the audio monitor and watching the built-in video display, he awaits the particular combination of tones and visual readings that indicate the presence of a promising metal, of noteworthy size and density, buried in the ground, usually three or four inches deep. Understanding the beeps is second nature to him after many years in the field, and when his detector announces the presence of non-ferrous metal — a good thing, he triangulates, lays the machine aside, pulls out his small digging tool and begins to probe. He soon uncovers a small, diamond-shaped piece of copper caked with dirt. He's not sure what it is and begins to lay it aside when he notices the word "PORTER" stamped on its face. As he cleans off the dirt with a combination of fingers and spit, he sees "CHARLESTON" and the date 1838. At the bottom is the number "369." Ironically, he had, just days earlier, read an article in a trade magazine that identified such pieces. But certainly, he thinks, a find like this would never be made here.
That night, Rejebian searches the internet and confirms its identity as a slave tag from Charleston, South Carolina. The word "porter" denotes the occupation of the man who wore it. The date marks the year in which the city issued the tag to the slave's owner, allowing the master to further profit from the forced labor of the slave by leasing him out to do work for others. The number signifies its issue order. Now, new questions present themselves: How did the tag make its way to Mississippi, to whom did it belong, and how did it come to be lost? There is no way to know for sure, but more is known now than was before. An enslaved man, a porter late of Charleston, once was there.
Relics of slaves' lives are rare — far rarer than relics of soldiers or other free people, particularly people of means. Slaves did not have much, and what they had was usually perishable. Even their cemeteries are today little more than sunken places in the ground, the wooden markers long ago rotted down into the earth. The actual records of slaves' lives are largely found only in footnotes to their owners' lives, in documents such as slave inventories in masters' wills.
As with so many relics that Rejebian uncovers, the slave tag is illuminating in a bewildering way, positing new information while raising previously unimagined questions, such as how the slave came to be where he was when the tag was lost, and how it came to be lost at all. Was the slave a runaway, or was the tag kept as a memento of a sad past, or, alternatively, of a comparatively happy time back in Carolina? What is most important to Rejebian is that the tag has been subsumed, and that the questions can even be asked. He has found a clue to what happened in people's lives, something he can hold in his hand. He is not particularly interested in its monetary value, and does not consider selling it at auction. Although the mania to collect has prompted him to buy a handful of pieces that have spoken to him over the years, the moment of discovery is what excites him most.
Rejebian is usually content to leave his finds with any host landowner who cares. In this case, he feels the slave tag deserves more than a resting place in a case in his own house, and so decides to donate it to the Mississippi state historical museum. He will be disappointed when the curators, despite their initial seeming enthusiasm, choose to briefly display the tag, then consign it to the archives. The curators did not seem to fully appreciate the treasure that had been unearthed and placed in their hands. After its short evocation, the tag essentially went underground again — one more series of questions raised and left unanswered, though at least now they will be catalogued and will not have to be rediscovered, not anytime soon, anyway.
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