UNION COUNTY — The portrait of a woman who began life as a member of royalty in 18th century Madagascar, then became a slave, first in Africa and then in America where she lived to regain her freedom at the end of the Civil War will be part of an exhibit on the life and work of a Union County artist.
“The Art and Life of Addie Sims: A Look into Her World” will be presented during a reception at the South Carolina State Museum on Saturday.
The reception will be a one-time only opportunity for the public to view the work of Sarah Adeline “Addie” Sims who was born in Union County in 1828 in the Grindal Shoals community. Once the reception is over, the 15 paintings displayed will be placed in storage by the museum for conservation and preservation, but the general public will still be able to view them through an online “virtual exhibit” at scmuseum.org/exhibits.
The paintings on display during the reception and in the virtual exhibit include the images and scenes Sims drew of life on her family’s plantation in the 1840s. Gene Matthews, a relative of Sims, said her paintings are the only known visual representation of plantation life in the Upstate including slaves from before the Civil War.
Sims’s work from that time includes portraits of “Aunt Siller” and “Uncle Johnnie,” two of her family’s slaves. Their portraits are included in the collection donated by Sims’ relatives to the museum for Saturday’s reception and the virtual exhibit.
In announcing the reception and virtual exhibit, the museum noted that unlike many white artists of the era, Sims’ paintings are neither caricatures nor idealized depictions of black life on a plantation. Instead, Sims’ paintings are described as personal portaits of real people and the lives they led.
Meadows agreed, pointing out that the portaits of Siller and Johnnie convey their humanity and the inner strength that enabled them to persevere in the face of generations of enslavement.
“This is powerful, this is iconic,” Meadows said. “These are people who persevered and whose faces have a deep integrity. These portraits speak of a deep intergrity in all they went through.”
Meadows said Aunt Siller’s life was an especially remarkable one which began, not in America or even on the African continent like so many of those enslaved in America, but on the island of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, Meadows said that Siller, who was born in the 18th century, always claimed she’d began life as a member of royalty in Madgascar.
“She said she was the daughter of a tribal king on the Island of Madagascar,” Meadows said. “She always maintained that her father was captured during tribal warfare against an enemy; however his life and the lives of his family members were spared from death. Istead they were sold as slaves.”
Meadows said that at this time Madagascar was “an important transoceanic trading port and had gained prominence among European traders involved in the Transatlantic slave trade.”
It was this combination of her father’s defeat, his enemies decision to sell him and his family into slavery, and Madagascar’s prominence in the international slave trade that forced Siller, still a young girl, to endure not one, but two ocean crossings in slave ships. Meadows said the first of these was from Madagascar around the Cape of Good on the southern tip of the African continent to west Africa. From there, Siller would endure the infamous “middle passage” across the Atlantic Ocean, the route slave ships traveled from Africa to the Americas.
Meadows said this journey ended in the Norfolk/James River area of Virginia where Matthew Sims, the great-great-grandfather of Addie Sims, bought Siller.
Yet another journey awaited Siller when the Sims family took her and their other slaves with them when they moved to South Carolina. Siller would spend most, though not all, of the rest of her life as a slave on the Sims family plantation in Grindal Shoals.
Meadows said that as the years went by, Siller and Johnnie became the matriarch and patriarch of the enslaved population on the Sims plantation. Johnnie died in 1860, but Meadows said Siller reportedly lived to see the end of the Civil War and be emancipated, regaining the freedom she’d lost decades earlier.
Unlike so many of those who endured slavery, however, Siller and her story have not been lost, but have instead been preserved, in part because of Addie Sims and her paintings of life on her family’s plantation.
“The arc of Aunt Siller’s incredible experience begins in the late eighteenth century, with her being captured and enslaved in Madagascar, and ends after the American Emancipation in Upcountry South Carolina,” Meadows said. “Aunt Siller was the subject of many paintings by Adeline Sims. Fortunately several of these depictions of Siller have survived, as well as visual insights into Upcountry plantation life in antebellum South Carolina.”
The other protrait is that of Uncle Johnnie who Meadows said was born around 1778 and “was a slave through four generations of Sims family owners.”
Meadows said that Johnnie came to South Carolina from Virginia after the Revolutionary War. He said that in 1837 Johnnie relocated when his third owner, Matthews Sims, moved the Sims family to Grindal Shoals near the current SC Highway 18 bridge over the Pacolet River.
It was there on the Grindal Shoals plantation that Johnnie died in 1860. His fourth and final owner, Joseph Starke Sims, wrote of his death in his daily planter’s journal, referring to him not as Johnnie but as John. The entry is a testament to John’s status as the property of the Sims family, but also to the deep emotional attachment and even, after a fashion, respect some slaveowners had for some of their slaves.
“My old negro man John, died, aged some 81 or 82 years. John was raised to the size of a plough boy by my Great Grand Father, Mathew Sims; passed by his death into the hands of my Grand Father Charles Sims; given by him to my Father William Sims; and from him given to myself; each of the former owners lived to the age of 85 years. John has been in the Baptist church for 50 years or more. He has been a faithful and good Servant, always doing his duty, with obedience and punctuality. He was much attached to the family of his masters and has been always much regarded by us all. Peace be with you my old and faithful negro!!!”
Meadows added that John may have been one of the original African-American members of the congregation that after the Civil War because Jerusalem Baptist Church in the Jonesville area.