A beautiful Federal-style brick structure looms up from behind a massive magnolia tree as one zips down South Carolina Highway 56. Even from a distance it’s apparent that this antebellum edifice likely has a storied history.

Called Belfast, it was built around 1785 by Col. John Simpson, a native of Ireland who named the elegant home for his birthplace. Simpson even had the bricks shipped from Ireland, according to the Palmetto Conservation Foundation.

It would become the home for generations of South Carolina political, military and legal luminaries.

The structure remains relatively unchanged from when it was constructed and demonstrates a commitment to both functionality and craftsmanship.

“The original nine-over-nine windows are evenly spaced across the main facade with simple sills and lintels,” according to a Historical and Architectural Survey of Eastern Laurens (SC) County done in 2003. “The double entry door is crowned with a fanlight and stone arch detail.”

Today, Belfast, which includes more than 4,600 acres, is owned by the state, having been purchased by the SC Department of Natural Resources and the state Conservation Fund within the past few years from International Paper, according to the Newberry Observer.

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Evidence that’s there’s nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to bad behavior, can be found by perusing old newspapers.

Take this sad tale from the Oct. 28, 1896, edition of the Newberry (SC) Observer:

A “well-to-do colored farmer” named Pressley Cromer, living in Newberry, “came into possession of some lurid literature” put out by the Migration Society, which evidently spoke of the joys of life back in Africa, according to the publication.

Apparently buoyed by the knowledge that the society’s president was Bishop Henry McNeal Turner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cromer sold his 50-acre farm, house, three mules, cow and calf, 20 hogs, 500 bushels of corn, 225 gallons of molasses, 35 bales of cottonseed and all his furniture.

He then booked passage to Liberia for himself, his wife, his four children, his mother and father, his two brothers and their wives. The price: $412 – no paltry sum in the late 18th century.

Liberia is unusual among African nations because beginning in the early 1800s, the region was colonized by freed American slaves through the help of such organizations as the American Colonization Society, a private entity that believed ex-slaves would have greater freedom and equality in Africa.

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To understand the impact of a recent study that suggests some 750,000 Americans perished during the War Between the States, rather than the 620,000 figure that’s been accepted for more than a century, consider this:

Given the current US population, the new figure would be the equivalent of 7.5 million dead today.

“The Civil War left a culture of death, a culture of mourning, beyond anything Americans had ever experienced or imagined,” David Blight, a Civil War historian at Yale University, told the BBC. “It left a degree of family and social devastation unprecedented for any Western society.”

Historian J. David Hacker of Binghamton University SUNY published a paper late last year in Civil War History revealing the new figure, based on demographic methods and sophisticated statistical software he used to study newly digitized US census records from 1850 to 1880.

Hacker began by taking digitized samples from the decennial census counts taken 1850-1880.

Using statistics software SPSS, he counted the number of native-born white men of military age in 1860 and determined how many of that group were still alive in 1870, according to the BBC.

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A tall chimney, virtually alone in a field denuded of pine trees just days before, stood silhouetted against the winter sun.

Fifty trips down this stretch of South Carolina backcountry had never afforded me the above view, or even knowledge of the structure, or rather, what was left of it.

My first thought was that it was one of the increasingly rare but still extant examples of the havoc wrought by Sherman’s troops during their march through South Carolina in the early months of 1865.

Research shows that the structure, built by Thomas Wadlington in 1858, was indeed consumed by fire, but the conflagration took place some 124 years after Sherman’s bummers laid waste to much of the Palmetto State.

Known as the Keitt House, it was located eight miles east of Newberry, S.C., and was rented and used by the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity chapter of Newberry College from the early 1970s until Oct. 8, 1989, when it fell victim to flames.

Afterward, trees and undergrowth grew around what was left of the structure, mostly just the brick foundation and 30-foot-tall chimney, almost certainly built by slaves in the period just before the War Between the States.

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Conventional wisdom holds that the subject of race in the South is an inflexible, immutable issue, separate and distinct as regards blacks and whites. Just as importantly, it always has been, according to popular notion.

A couple of cursory examples:

  • Southern blacks today are overwhelmingly seen as being aligned with the Democratic Party, while a solid majority of Southern whites are Republicans; and
  • If you visit a so-called “black church” or a “white church” you’ll rarely find many people of the opposite race on hand.

But as selectively segregated as some institutions may appear to be today, there’s no doubt that race relations have thawed considerably in the region over the past 40 years. Obviously, Jim Crow didn’t do a whole lot to bring people of different backgrounds together prior to that, nor was it designed to.

However, one occasionally stumbles across a glimpse of a past that shows that not everything was as neatly delineated between the two races as today’s stereotypical view of yesteryear might have us believe.

If one looks hard enough, there are examples that show the South, like any part of the United States, was and is an infinitely more complex region than today’s television pundits and political opportunists would have us believe.

Case in point: Earlier this month while rambling through the South Carolina Upstate, I came across New Enoree Baptist Church, located in rural Newberry County, about six miles northeast of the town of Newberry.

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