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The Vision Of Nat Fuller
Published:
4/29/2015 5:46:52 PM

By Barney Blakeney 


I initially didn’t grasp the significance of the invitation to participate in the recreation of Nat Fuller’s Feast, a dinner planned for about 80 guests at McCrady’s Long Room April 19 in commemoration of the original meal the Black slave chef hosted in Charleston at the end of the Civil war.
 
To start, I had no knowledge of Fuller and had never considered that some of the finest chefs in the antebellum south were Black. My uninformed perception of Black cooks were shaped by images of 300-lb. Aunt Sukies with scarves tied around their heads whipping up fried chicken and mashed potatoes in the kitchen of the ‘Big Houses’ on plantations or townhouses like the Aiken-Rhett Mansion on Judith Street.
 
I’d shot an email to a former editor - just touching bases - I try to never burn bridges. She asked me to attend the commemorative dinner which originally was held by this slave in an effort to bring together Blacks and whites in Charleston in a spirit of reconciliation after the war ended. I’m a broke reporter. A free Sunday feast! I jumped at the chance. As often happens with me regarding such things, it was one of my most memorable experiences.
 
I first dined at the Long Room years ago with the late A.J. Clement Jr. Like many other young brothers, Mr. Clement took me under his wings and tried to give me some exposure, encouragement and enterprise. Gen. George Washington dined at the Long Room while in Charleston back in Revolutionary times. I’ve always felt honored that me, the son of a cook who sold food from the trunk of his car, dined at the same place. My dad and Mr. Clement, two of the greatest men I’ve ever known.

The invitation to go back to the Long Room turned another leaf in my book of life and revealed a history I had no clue about. Fuller was an exceptional man. A slave who lived from 1812-1866, the dash on his tombstone symbolized a life of accomplishment. University of South Carolina Prof. David S. Shields did the research that revealed Fuller as a slave who was taught the fine arts of culinary science. His intelligence transcended the kitchen however. Although Fuller grew to become one of Charleston’s finest chefs and restauranteurs, this Black man was way ahead of his time. The feast he hosted at his restaurant, The Bachelor’s Retreat at 103 Church St., brought together Blacks and whites not only to celebrate the war’s ending, but also a new beginning in a society of free men and women.

I sat between Steve Skardon of the Palmetto Project and Kristopher King of the Preservation Society of Charleston. Across from me sat restauranteur Alluette Jones-Smalls and history professor Damon Fordham. What could I talk about in that company? But this old boy from Mary Ford Elementary and C.A. Brown High schools held his own, ya’ll. Can’t beat great teachers like Pandora Baker and Joseph A. ‘Pop’ Moore. Steve talked about the diplomacy he uses to influence legislative and other issues while Kristopher talked about McCleod Plantation and the preservation society’s honor to ironwork craftsmen Joseph Ronnie Pringle, Carlton Simmons and Yaw Shangofemi last April 25 at the Reid House. All three are apprentices of the late master craftsman Philip Simmons.

But it was Alluette who dominated the conversation. She passionately argued how 150 years after Fuller’s feast Charleston still is a difficult place for a Black woman to succeed. And Damon, in a toast to the festivities, noted that 150 years after the feast a Black man on April 4 in this community was struck down in a hail of racism fired from a white police officer’s gun. I talked with College of Charleston history professor Bernie Powers who helped pull the whole thing together. He admitted a lot is unknown about Fuller’s guests and that it may be stretching it a bit to think that they included a lot of die-hard confederates who had just lost the war and their way of life. But he agreed with Shields that the event demonstrated the host’s novelty, splendor and audacity.

I am mesmerized to think that a Black slave in 1865 had the vision to see war-torn Charleston as a place where Blacks and whites would come together, break bread and hope for a brighter future. I guess, through those of us at the Long Room their hope was realized.As Powers said, perhaps we will take Fuller’s dream into our communities where maybe our children and grandchildren will see that dream even more realized.

We’ve come a long way. But as Powers said, we’ve still a long way to go. In 1865 a Black slave saw the vision of a greater Charleston. In 2015 do we have the intelligence to make his vision a reality?
 

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