Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Steve Perry: Thanks for the Slavery!

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 8, 2018

A history of Rome and Floyd County, state of Georgia, United StaA few years ago I wrote up a profile on Steve Perry of Rome, Georgia. Perry was better known in his later years as “Uncle Steve Eberhart,” and was a fixture at Confederate reunions across the South for more than 20 years. Although there were a number of old African American men who attended and performed — there’s really no other word for it — at such reunions, Perry was distinctive. Although he was not a large man physically, Perry always stood out because of the outlandish costume he wore, that usually included a battered top hat decorated with feathers and brass epaulets with miniature flags in them. Often he carried one or two live chickens (right) to highlight his role as a forager during the war.

One of the things I came to understand about Perry was that he appears to have treated his “Uncle Steve Everhart” role as something of a character, separate and distinct from Steve Perry. “Eberhart” was, in effect, a stage name. While making public appearances at Confederate reunions, men like Perry typically went out of their way to embrace the “happy slave” stereotype of African-Americans central to the Lost Cause. They were cheerful, obsequious, and above all grateful for the beneficence of their “white folks.” All of this is well-known to anyone who has looked closely at contemporary accounts of their appearances Confederate reunions.

But knowing all that, I was still surprised to come across this short clip of Steve Perry speaking to the newsreel camera at a reunion, said to be at Biloxi in 1930. Although I’d read a number of interviews with Perry, it was the first time I heard his voice. It was apparently an unusual occasion for him too, because he took the opportunity to play his role in the Lost Cause narrative to the hilt (at about the 1:00 mark):

 

“[unintelligible] southern white man, my race would have been in the jungles of Africa today, ignorant as any wild beast. He brought me over here, and made a human out of me!”

“Made a human out of me,” in the form of chattel property. Yuck. No wonder he was so popular at reunions, and was considered to be a “mascot” of the Floyd County UCV camp in Rome.

I used to think that Steve Perry/Eberhart was slyly ridiculous. Now I suspect he was just ridiculous ridiculous.

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6 Responses

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  1. Andy Hall said, on May 9, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Lest anyone think this was a one-off, here’s Perry/Eberhart quoted in a 1922 history of Rome County, referring to his attendance at a UCV Convention in Houston in 1920.:

    I want to thank the good white people of Rome for sending me to Texas to the Old Soldiers’ Reunion. I am thankful. I shall ever remain in my place, and be obedient to all the white people. I pray that the angels may guard the homes of all Rome, and the light of God shine upon them. I will now give you a rest until the reunion next year, if the Lord lets me live to see it. Your humble servant. Steve Eberhart

  2. Matt McKeon said, on May 9, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    I always thought he was pulling a Stepin Fetchin act. But if he actually believed it, it’s soul crushing. It actually is a kind of death. And to require or applaud this kind of submission is an indictment of his audience.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 9, 2018 at 10:22 pm

      He started his shtick at least as far back as 1911 (as Steve Perry), and continued until at least 1934, when he appeared in Chattanooga, claiming to be 106. (He would’ve actually been in his mid- to late 80s, which itself was an accomplishment.) So he was at this for going on twenty-five years, and as far as I know he kept it up as long as he was able. He died in 1936.

      You can never know what a person “really” believes or thinks; you can only judge by what they do and say. In this case, given Perry’s long, long embrace of the role, I’m not sure it matter what he “really” thought.

  3. Msb said, on May 12, 2018 at 10:21 am

    Lordy.

  4. Martin said, on May 16, 2018 at 11:01 am

    It’s like watching a hostage/POW video, where the captive says he is fine and being treated well. If they replaced the word “bodyguard” with “mascot”, it would be more believable.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 16, 2018 at 8:39 pm

      Well, Perry/Eberhart was explicitly referred to as the “mascot” of the local Rome, Georgia UCV camp.

      I don’t think the hostage/PoW analogy quite works, because ultimately Perry and men like him weren’t compelled to do and say the things they did. Perry and his fellows chose to do so.


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