This summer, the College mourned a loss, saying goodbye to something that had been part of the campus for decades. Once standing sturdy in the corner of the Cistern Yard, a live oak timbered that summer day, leaving behind a vacant space and radiant sun beams to replace the shady spot. Upon hearing the news, social media blazed, news reports circulated and even our dear President Glenn McConnell shared condolences for the tree, expressing that it was saddening to see one less oak shade our campus. While a fallen tree is a fairly natural phenomenon, so much fuss was concentrated on this one event, and hearts twinged knowing this tree was no more.
We often wander through the Cistern, using it as a shortcut or a meeting spot. In our busy days, the agricultural blueprint never really occurs to us. Beautiful brick walkways wind their way through 26 majestic oaks, concealing students under a canopy of branches and moss that makes for perfect Instagram snapshots that undeniably evoke the Charleston aesthetic. These trees are everywhere on campus: sprinkled on the streets, adorning the College logo, even our online portal is christened OAKS.
Why so much emphasis on the oak? Why not decorate the College with the South Carolina state tree – the palmetto? Or deck the school logo with southern magnolias? There is no coincidence as to why this tree follows us everywhere. Oak trees are beloved, revered, protected – the husks of their bark engraved with stories, their branches elongated with history. But what are the secrets hidden in the shadows of these trees? If all the oaks were to be removed, what answers would be revealed in the sunlight? Digging down to the roots of the oak trees, the underlying connotations of these quintessential southern entities are revealed.
The Giving Tree
Arguably nature’s most magnificent creation, oaks have the ability to live over 1000 years – the epitome of resilience. While the deep South may come to mind when one thinks of these trees, oaks can be found stretching from the wooded plains of Virginia to the sandy soils of Florida, thriving predominantly in coastal regions. Though not known to grow much vertically, the crown or canopy of oaks can span a remarkable 150 feet. In the Holy City, the Angel Oak is known for going above and beyond. Taking root on John’s Island, this tree is dubbed the oldest living thing east of the Rockies, having been around for an estimated 1,500 years. A glorious wonder, the Angel Oak’s branches span 160 feet. With her circumference measuring at 25 feet and covering 17,000 square feet of ground, the Angel Oak is a clear example of how these trees physically make their presence known and demand attention.
Nothing related to the oak is ordinary. Contrary to popular belief, the live oak’s common decoration – Spanish Moss – is not Spanish, or moss, nor a parasite set out to harm the tree. An air plant closely related to the pineapple, Spanish Moss often adorns oak limbs because it can easily coexist and grow within the deep grooves of the bark. It is also rare to see live oaks without the resurrection fern crawling up their trunks. This plant can stay dormant and hidden for long periods of time, but with a little water, springs back to life.
Rather than simply taking breaths away, City of Charleston Arborist Danny Burbage explained how oak trees once gave back to the people and were actually quite useful. Possessing a wood that is highly strong and durable, the timber value of oaks was well acknowledged in the early days of America. Because of the irregular curved shape in its limbs, live oaks were harvested and ideal for shipbuilding. “We in the south need to be thankful for the invention of steel ships because that is what saved our forests and oaks.” Burbage also explained how in the absence of structures and buildings, “oak trees were a symbol and a landmark for people to gather around and talk about important community events.”For instance, the arborist referenced the Charleston Liberty Tree. On Alexander Street, it was the site where Christopher Gadsden, a wealthy merchant, gathered and rallied the Sons of Liberty to go to war against the British in the 1700s. It is also beneath this oak that South Carolinians would first hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Producing practical and vital uses, citizens truly benefited from oaks’ economic and functional contributions. With such power, it is no wonder why the oak was — and continues to be — cherished.
More than just a tree
Oaks have an alluring power that intrigues and provokes the mind. For most – southerners in particular – the oak is not just a tree, for it holds profound meaning. A sort of icon of the Lowcountry, the oak is synonymous with the region and everything it stands for.
“They are simultaneously muscular and graceful – when you think about the large limbs and how they swoop and they dip. They are sort of a poem in and of themselves – or a dance,” Burbage said, describing the oak. Primarily symbolizing strength and endurance, while harmoniously retaining poise and elegance, the qualities of oaks work hand in hand with the characteristics and perceptions of the South. Just thinking of the mottos that must have circulated during the Civil War, it was during the South’s weakest moments that they relied on the understanding of power, potency and durability. As the mighty oaks continuously prospered, endured and stood the test of time, people not only appreciated, but also attached themselves to these convictions. After all, with such a grand tree in its backyards, the “grand ole South” must too be unbreakable and everlasting in the face of adversity. Subsequently, we see how oaks not only represent the land, but represent its people – and this is a culture that must be preserved.
In most places, this theory is seriously upheld. J.R. Kramer, a local landscape architect, explained that South Carolina protects its grand trees from any kind of removal. Any tree with a circumference of 24 inches or more is protected under law and any persons wishing to remove one must go through the appropriate procedures to do so. This often includes seeking approval from zoning administrators and coordinating a plan to plant an alternate tree once the grand tree is removed. Even at times when a grand tree may pose a threat to its surroundings, it is unlawful and arguably immoral to eliminate an oak tree. “We can’t cut them down because they are iconic,” Burbage declared. “People feel a special identity with them – feel a special relationship. We identify them with the region – and that really speaks to people.” Essentially, an ideology is crafted. If the trees are gone, the land is tampered with – and along with the land – the people and their pride for the south infected. Protecting the oak is a matter of protecting identity.
Even today, this concept can be seen in Southern culture practically everywhere. From Civil War reenactments, to people fighting for their right to raise the Confederate flag, southern pride is historical and inanimate items can at times symbolize a sentimental cultural significance. It is sometimes difficult to separate objects from a feeling, belief or moment in time. Surely this is something that Boone Hall Plantation, for instance, continues to live by today. With oak trees that have been growing since the 1700s, the plantation’s Avenue of Oaks is nearly a mile of antique timber. Leading up to the main house, there is a sense of being transported back into antebellum Charleston – and the oaks certainly add to that. For Burbage, plantations and oaks are nearly one in the same. To a plantation, an oak tree on its land symbolized heritage, and radiated the message that the South is strong and mighty in its beliefs, practices and values. And the same can be applied to our Cistern Yard – that the College, like the South, is steadfast in its principles. “It’s hard to think of a Lowcountry estate or one of the old plantations or for that matter – having grown up in Charleston for me – the Cistern Yard without live oaks,” declared Burbage. “They are a part of the identity of Charleston.”
Secrets in the shadows
While the messages associated with oak trees can be endearing and romantic, persuading those to believe in the power of an unbreakable heritage, lying within the shadows of these trees resides a Southern discomfort.
Oak trees and plantations have a bond, one rarely seen without the other. But this connection can be negative; plantations were a site of oppression as well. With the brutal system of slavery under its foundations, plantations for blacks were not exactly a home to take pride in. This idea of preserving the oak tree, and thus preserving the plantation, leads us to question of what or whose values are being protected and preserved. Are the values of discrimination and hatred becoming frozen in time? While the south may have seen the land as an entity to be prideful in, those who were crippled by Southern ideologies are often forgotten.
In 1939, Billie Holiday once crooned “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” To the singer, these southern trees – including oaks- carried a negative connotation. Holliday, like the rest of the south, recognized the oak as a tree possessing profound meaning. But rather than strength and pride, she and most Blacks’ sense of the oak assumedly stemmed from a message of lynchings. Like so many historical artifacts in the South, at first glance, the song seems to be extremely surface level – trees in the South and the fruit they bare. But there is more to these trees than what meets the eye. Oak trees evoke a moment in time connoted with the horrors of lynching and the destruction of black bodies. We are reminded of the early 20th century, in which lynch mobs tried and executed more than 5,000 Black individuals for a variety of misdemeanours and false accusations.
This ugly history can be easy to overlook when one is strolling Charleston’s charming streets. People often walk or drive down Ashley Avenue and Fishburne Street, and while they notice the tree that interrupts the middle of the road, not everyone knows it is the oak that most Blacks and historians consider the “Hanging Tree.” Legend holds that this is the tree where Denmark Vesey and his enslaved rebels were hanged. History also indicates that the first two people hanged in Charleston were Harry and Janie, slaves of Christopher Black. After being whipped by their master, the enslaved duo set out to kill Christopher and the entire Black family. Poisoning their breakfast one morning, all but two family members died instantly. After an investigation the two slaves were hanged on that big oak tree on Ashley Avenue.
Considering the trees growing in the Cistern were planted in the 1920s, these oaks may not have experienced bodies lynched, but they certainly have lived through a time when racial discrimination hung heavy in the air. For nearly two centuries, the College remained a private institution, welcoming only White students. For decades, young Blacks applied for the College, yearning for an acceptance letter that would never come.
Nestled in the heart of the historic district, the College and the Cistern must have represented a sort of sanctuary for its White students and citizens. This sanctuary was under the protection of these massive oaks, meaning Southern identity was protected and no outsiders could attempt to obstruct the Southern identity that the institution tried so hard to uphold. Simply walking past the Cistern was certainly an experience in itself for the black community. Passing the fort-like gates of the Cistern, and seeing the majestic oaks mounted in its yard, a message must have been sent to Blacks. Resembling that of a plantation, and reiterating the messages of the “good ole south,” the message was not a welcoming one.
It would not be until 1967 that the College welcomed Black students into their sanctuary.