Why did you choose to pursue a career in history?
I don’t think I chose history so much as it chose me. Growing up in Charleston helped. I think I caught the bug when I was five years old and found a Revolutionary War cannonball while I was playing in the side yard of our house on lower King Street. I was in awe. I remember thinking, “Where did THIS come from???” As time went on, I wanted more answers – why was it called the Battery? Who was the man called Sullivan and why did they name an island after him? Why is it called a barrier island when it is only made of sand? I started finding out. I’m almost maniacal about it, like a bulldog that won’t let go until I have the answer. I worked as a reference librarian while I was in Gettysburg. It was the perfect job for me. You want to know why? Ask Suzannah. She’ll find out. I think this search for answers is the core of what history is all about. Answering the question “why” is the root of history, of our collective past.
You’ve also written books, short-stories and several beautifully illustrated historic maps. What motivates you in your work?
Charles Schultz did the short answer in a Peanuts cartoon. Snoopy was on top of his dog house with his typewriter answering the question “what was the author’s purpose in writing this story?” Snoopy’s answer was, “because he needed the money.” Seriously, money isn’t a motivator with my work. I joked when I started “writing” history that I was taking a vow of poverty. I think the greatest motivation is the desire to share what I have learned—what I keep learning—and to do so enthusiastically. I am consequently very open with my findings gladly provide sources and leads to others. All they have to do is ask.
As a ‘Sea Islander’, why do you think it is important to preserve history?
The South Carolina Lowcountry Sea Islands hold a truly unique blend of both social and natural history. The two are not mutually exclusive but intrinsically intertwined. A perfect example is the rice culture. Only because of the area’s natural attributes – the tide-driven rivers and lowlands – was rice able to be grown so successfully. Because of rice, we can look back on a phenomenally rich heritage that includes the Gullah people and language, the plantation hierarchy and ultimately, the wealth that made Charleston. Preserving this past, recognizing its history and continuing to learn from it is not only important, it is imperative.
Do you feel enough is being done to preserve the history on the sea islands?
I think some areas have done an outstanding job. The ACE basin’s protection is nothing short of phenomenal. Yet there are still disturbing pockets, places and situations that need to be addressed. In some areas there is rampant over-development. In others, poverty still holds back even basic education, much less historic preservation. And always, there is the continued frustration of fighting developers determined to build in fragile areas, places that should never be developed such as Captain Sam’s Spit at Kiawah.
In what ways has being a female historian been advantageous? In contrast, have you ever encountered any barriers?
I don’t think my being female has been either advantageous or held me back. I’ve frankly never even thought about it. I was already a well-known professional writer when I decided to focus on history. What has been a bit of a barrier is my not having a degree in history or having an affiliation with a college or university.
What advice would you give to young women who are interested in pursuing a career in history?
Don’t give up your day job!
Seriously, I would offer this same advice to woman or man: Get that degree (or several). Find your niche. Most of all: Make sure your sources are real and keep to the facts. There is a lot of revisionism right now. None of us can change what happened in the past. What we can do as historians — what we are honor-bound to do — is to report the information accurately. No editorializing required.
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