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History: Woman who preserved slave stories enters Hall of Fame
By Jason Lesley
Genevieve Willcox Chandler will become the third inductee into the Georgetown County Women’s Hall of Fame today.
The ceremony is scheduled at noon at Kimbel’s in Wachesaw Plantation during a luncheon being presented jointly by Brookgreen Gardens, Women in Philanthropy and Leadership for Coastal Carolina University and the Georgetown County Historical Society. Chandler’s life will be the focus of a lecture by Robin R. Salmon, vice president of art and historical collections and curator of sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens. Chandler will be remembered as an artist, historian, folklorist, linguist, short-story writer, teacher and museum curator. A significant portion of her legacy, according to Salmon, comes from work during the Great Depression when she interviewed former slaves and recorded their stories for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project.
“The theme of the talk will be her legacy, or legacies,” Salmon said, “thinking about all the many areas she was involved with in her life, not just at Brookgreen but with the Writers Project, the former slave narratives, her painting. The central thread through all of this is that she was a very strong, principled and disciplined woman, how she persevered after being left with five young children when her husband died, the oldest being 11 and the youngest being 18 months old.”
The Georgetown County Women’s Hall of Fame will open once the county museum moves to its new home on Broad Street, which is currently being renovated. Despite a wealth of extraordinary women in the county’s history, their stories have largely gone untold, according to museum director Jill Santopietro. Chandler will join two earlier inductees: Elizabeth Allston Pringle (2011) and Eliza Lucas Pinckney (2012).
Chandler moved to Murrells Inlet at the age of 10 when her father, Clarke A. Willcox, purchased Wachesaw Plantation and The Hermitage. After her father’s death, Chandler and her family lived at Wachesaw until her husband died. The night after the funeral, 8-year-old Sister overheard her uncle encourage Genevieve Chandler to place her five children in Epworth Orphanage, because he did not see how she could possibly provide for them. She vowed to keep her family together. She and her children moved to The Hermitage on the inlet after her siblings sold the plantation to William Kimbel.
“She didn’t have an easy life,” Salmon said, “but she didn’t complain.”
Just before her husband’s death, Chandler had taken a position with the Federal Writer’s Project, a part of Roosevelt’s WPA Program. Her job was to collect slave narratives and folklore from members of the local community. Because her brother Richard “Dr. Dick” Willcox had cared for many of the residents, often with Genevieve in tow, they were willing to open up to her and tell their stories.
Between 1936 and 1938, Chandler interviewed more than 100 individuals in All Saints Parish. Her subjects, who ranged from 5-year-old Cato Singleton to 104-year-old Welcome Bees, spoke freely on topics from slave punishment to folk medicine, from conditions in the Jim Crow South to the exploits of Brer Rabbit.
An editors’ survey said Chandler’s interviews form an intimate portrait of a fascinating subculture. She had no formal training as an oral historian or folklorist, yet the sophistication of her work anticipates developments in these fields of study a generation beforehand. Her detailed descriptions add social context to folktales and her careful and systematic renderings of the Gullah language have since been praised by Creole linguists.
Her short stories drawn from the folklore of Waccamaw Neck were published in Scribner’s, Mademoiselle and Southwestern Review.
“It’s no stretch to compare Genevieve Chandler with William Faulkner, for both writers present us with entire worlds, complex flesh and blood worlds, where the simple virtues of honesty, courage and generosity not only endure but triumph,” McClellanville author William P. Baldwin told a magazine writer. “This oral history collection is a treasure.”
In 1939 Archer Huntington invited Chandler to become hostess of his sculpture garden, recently opened to the public. Chandler worked at Brookgreen Gardens for 28 years. Then, after retiring in 1967, she gained fame as a watercolor artist.