Down South whar de sugar cane grows

Down South whar de sugar cane grows

Down South whar de sugar cane grows

Location:               Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University  (Durham, North Carolina)

Title of Song:        Down South Where The Sugar Canes

Composer:            Hays, William Shakespeare

Illustrator:           J.H. Bufford

Publisher:             Oliver Ditson & Co.

Year & Place:      1877; Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:                   Music A-4231; 1-2

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:     hasm.a4231

Basic Description

Several different narratives simultaneously proceed in this image.  The central vignette, framed within a large, round looking-glass African-American boys dance in front of a log-cabin while an older male sits on a stool playing a banjo and another peers out of the door of the house.  To the right of this scene, two black males hunting gaze at two animals at the far left of the composition.  Above them, an African-American worker plows farmland with the aid of two horses.  Dancing on the terraces of a building near a large body of water in the upper-right corner of the space are a bevy of people with unknowable racial identity.  Finally, rising prominently above this edifice are two tall smokestacks with a confederate flag waving between them.

Personal Description

This image offers an optimistically skewed view of African-American life on a southern plantation with scenes of leisure occupying the center and those of work pushed into the periphery.  At the very least, it suggests that this lifestyle was both, diverse and balanced, replete with varying opportunities for release such as dancing and hunting.  Rather than a grim, more realistic version of quotidian toil, the viewer observes work that is ameliorated with the help of farm animals.  This southern, White, reverie is tempered by two elements.  The confederate flag in the background is a (not-so) subtle reminder and reinforcement of the racial order and socioeconomic structure.  In a visual strategy that formally mirrors the dissembled white identity behind the cork of the minstrel mask, the confederate marker invokes the presence of the only people not rendered in the scene but who were an integral part of this political equation – Southern white planters.

Reality Check

George Lewis Ruffin, 1834 – 1886

George Lewis Ruffin was born December 16, 1834 in Richmond, Virginia, the son of free blacks. He was educated in Boston and soon became a force in the city’s civic leadership. After marrying Josephine St. Pierre, Mr. Ruffin supported his family by working as a barber. In his spare time, Ruffin read law books and wrote reviews for a weekly publication. Eventually Ruffin was admitted to Harvard Law School where in 1869 he became the first African American to graduate. Later that year Ruffin was admitted to the Suffolk County Bar Association.

In 1864 Ruffin served as a delegate to the National Negro Convention in Syracuse, NY where he championed black suffrage and urged the organization to support the re-election of President Lincoln. From 1876 to 1877 Ruffin served on the Boston Common Council (city council). In 1883 he was appointed a judge on the Charlestown, Massachusetts Municipal Court. Ruffin was the first African American to serve in both posts.

Along with his civic duties, Ruffin served for twelve years as an officer of the 12th Baptist Church of Boston. George Lewis Ruffin died on November 19, 1886 in Boston, Massachusetts leaving his widow, three sons and a daughter. In his honor, the George Lewis Ruffin Society was founded at Northeastern University in 1984 to support minorities studying in the Massachusetts criminal justice system.


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