A Student of History

December 17, 2006

Oscar Marion is anonymous no longer

Filed under: The strange place called the South,Wars — John Maass @ 7:41 pm

This is from the Washington Post, and reprinted in a number of on-line news sites as well: 

WASHINGTON — For years, he was known only as the faithful servant. Through the long campaigns of the Revolutionary War, he toiled alongside his famous master. In a painting that has hung in the U.S. Capitol since 1899, he is the figure by the fire, roasting sweet potatoes.

Now Oscar Marion is anonymous no longer. He has had his name restored.

In a ceremony Friday at the Capitol, Marion was recognized as the “African-American Patriot” he always was. A proclamation signed by President Bush expressed the thanks of a “grateful nation” and recognized Oscar Marion’s “devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”

The occasion was a triumph for his distant cousin, genealogist Tina Jones, who researched his identity and pressed officials to honor him.

“He is not just some obscure figure in the background,” said Jones, president of the American Historical Interpretation Foundation in Rockville, Md. “This person had a name. He had a life and a separate contribution.”

Oscar Marion was the personal slave of Gen. Francis Marion, 1732-1795. Like other slaves of the time, he was given his master’s surname. The general was the legendary “Swamp Fox” from South Carolina who bedeviled British Redcoats during the War of Independence. He often is described as one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare. The 2000 movie, “The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson, was based on Swamp Fox lore.

Jones unearthed Oscar Marion’s name while researching the Marion branch of her family, members of whom were among about 200 slaves on the Marion plantation. Jones said she became fascinated about a year ago with the references she found to Francis Marion and the slave who always accompanied him, sometimes referred to simply as Oscar. The two were side by side during the seven years of the Revolutionary War, far longer than most men of the time served. In addition to his duties for the general, Oscar Marion also fought in the militia.

“In books written about Francis Marion, he is described as ‘the faithful Negro servant,’ “ Jones said.

As she researched paintings and portraits of the general, Jones became aware of several “that portray Francis with Oscar close by,” she said. A prominent one, titled “General Marion Inviting a British Officer to Share His Meal,” hangs in a third-floor corridor of the Senate wing of the Capitol. Its common name, Jones said, is “the sweet potato dinner picture.”

Painted sometime between 1815 and 1825 by South Carolina artist John Blake White, it depicts Francis Marion, in a military hat, talking to a red-coated British officer. He extends his hand in a gesture that includes Oscar, who kneels low behind a small table, cooking sweet potatoes on the fire.

The artist, who knew the Marion family as a young boy, grew up hearing the Swamp Fox legends. The painting recreated a scene from 1781, when the enemies met to discuss an exchange of prisoners of war, and Francis Marion surprised the British officer by inviting him to share his modest meal.

In 1899, White’s son donated the oil-on-canvas painting to the Senate, where it has hung since. The slave was not named, however, until Jones studied the painting this year and made a case that he was Oscar Marion. She presented her research to the Office of the Senate Curator, which cares for the Senate’s collection of 160 paintings and sculptures.

“We’re always very excited when new research comes up about anything in our collection,” said Melinda Smith, the associate curator.

The curator’s office recently updated its Web site description of the painting, noting that the slave has been identified as Oscar Marion. In coming months, the painting will be relabeled to reflect the new information. “It really tells a great story about the Revolutionary period,” Senate curator Diane Skvarla said at Friday’s event.

The ceremony accorded Oscar Marion the respect he might not have received during his life. The D.C. National Honor Guard presented the colors; the invocation was led by the House of Representatives chaplain, the Rev. Daniel Coughlin.

U.S. Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., said the case has “historical significance.”

“African-Americans have been marginalized in so many different events in American history, as if they didn’t exist,” said Wynn, whose office helped Jones arrange the ceremony. “Whenever we can bring to light the name of a figure engaged in a historic event, it is a good thing.”

Jones said she continues to research the intertwined lives of Francis Marion and Oscar Marion. Although Francis married late in life, remaining childless, there is no evidence Oscar had a wife or a family, she said. She has found no direct descendants. Oscar Marion probably lived out his last days near the man he had served for a lifetime — on the large Marion plantation in Berkeley County.

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