More proof the past isn’t always as tidy as we think it is


Another example of South Carolina’s counterintuitive past revealed itself recently, in a cemetery in the middle of the state.

Buried in the graveyard of Flint Hill Baptist Church, a black church located in northwestern Newberry County, are the remains of Richard “Dick” Roberts.

Roberts, who was born March 15, 1833, and died March 7, 1906, has a rather unusual inscription on his tombstone: “During the troublous years of reconstruction he was true to the people among whom he was born, and with whom he was reared.”

A March 9, 1906, story in the Newberry (SC) Observer provided some insight.

“Dick Roberts, colored, was known in his day as a ‘Hampton democrat.’ In fact he voted with democrats all the time, and wore the ‘red shirt’ in the famous campaign of 1876. He was one of the very few negroes who sided with their white neighbors in politics. Dick dropped dead at his home on the Duncan place in Cromer Township on Wednesday. He was about 65 years old.”

The Red Shirts are relatively little known outside South Carolina, but they were supporters of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton during his run for governor in 1876. Hampton’s election that year brought an end to eight years of Republican rule in South Carolina and the subsequent withdrawal of Federal occupation troops.

A week after Roberts’ death the Observer followed up:

“Dick Roberts, colored, of Number 4 Township, who was a democrat all the dark days of reconstruction and to the day of his death, voting always with his white neighbors, died recently, as was mentioned in The Observer at the time. Remembering his loyalty and fidelity and appreciating his faithful services and the correctness of his life, and feeling that some recognition should be made of these, his white friends have decided to pay his funeral expense and to erect a simple and suitable monument at his grave. A liberal subscription is being raised for this purpose. Sheriff Buford has a list at his office and Mr. C.H. Shannon also has one.”

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Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race


This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery. Continue reading

Brickhouse a testament to beauty of classic architecture

riser brick house

Located seven miles from the nearest town, the structure known as the Brickhouse is almost as isolated today as it was when it was built in rural Upstate South Carolina 185 years ago. Yet in its prime, it was a central locale that served not only as a large plantation and stagecoach stop, but was said to be a place Confederate President Jefferson Davis rested as he fled south from Richmond in the waning days of the War Between the States.

Today, the all-brick two-and-a-half-story structure shows the ravages of time, with the occasional missing window and cracked mortar evident, yet still retains much of its elegance. While it sits near the corner of a country intersection, trees and vegetation have grown up over the years and it’s easy to miss despite its proximity to the road.

The Brickhouse is described as possessing a simple facade containing evenly spaced nine-over-nine, double-hung sash windows with gauged arches, stone sills and a central-entry door, crowned with a fanlight and decorative arch.

Located approximately seven miles west of the small town of Whitmire and seven miles east of the even smaller community of Joanna, on the Newberry-Laurens county line, the structure possesses a rich history.

Classified as a double-pile I-house, with dual chimneys at both ends, it was built of bricks made nearby, quite possibly by slaves.

The property was originally owned by Dr. Francis Fielding Calmes (1794-1865) and served as a stagecoach stop on the Whitmire-Joanna Road, which today is known as South Carolina Highway 66.

Calmes sold the property, which included several thousand acres, to Major Samuel Young, who transformed it into a major operation, with approximately 100 slaves by the time the Civil War began. Continue reading

Puppies and kittens and rainbows …


Apparently, big black rat snakes aren’t everyone’s favorite creatures. Hence, the above photo of adorable puppies.

They’re not my puppies, mind you, as I have no puppies, nor even a dog.

It’s simply a way to put something on this blog so that yesterday’s image of a large black rat snake – which I personally found fascinating – would no longer be the first thing folks saw when they clicked on this site.

I sensed a tiny bit of negativity toward snakes after posting the image of a five-foot reptile (see comments in yesterday’s post) that I caught in Newberry County, SC.

Or perhaps it was Mrs. Cotton Boll’s reaction, via email: “You are nuts! I hope you put that yellow jacket and all clothing directly in the washing machine. This freaked me out!”

Of course, I had failed to inform Mrs. Cotton Boll of my success in the snake-catching department the previous day, knowing that she is deathly afraid of our no-legged friends.

She is a regular reader of this blog, but I had failed to anticipate her response to a seeing a large constricting snake, particularly one wrapped around her husband’s wrist and hand.

Needless to say, a Hazmat team was dispatched to decontaminate all clothing that may have come into contact with said black rat snake, and I was politely but firmly admonished.

Actually, Mrs. Cotton Boll is a pretty good sport, given my proclivity for capturing odd wild beasts and her distaste of same. Of course, she did know what she was getting herself into when she said “I do.”

Nothing marks spring’s arrival like … snakes

Black rat snake 4 20 2014 059

Different folks have different ways of ushering in spring. For some, the simple arrival of the vernal equinox, marking the point on the calendar when days and nights are of the same approximate length, (March 20 this year) is good enough. For others, it’s tied to specific events such as Easter, the start of the Major League Baseball season or spring break for high schools and colleges.

I measure spring’s return slightly differently. In my eyes, spring begins gradually, with the arrival of wisteria in the trees and shrubs here in central South Carolina, which usually occurs in mid-March, followed by other flora and fauna, such swallowtail butterflies, red-tailed hawks and white-tailed deer.

But the one event that signifies unequivocally, at least in my world, that the seasons have changed is represented by the capture of the first snake of the year. For me, at least, spring came yesterday.

I’d had a near-brush a couple of weeks back when I took my girls to Woods Bay State Park, near Olanta, SC, where we saw a Northern water snake just inches from our path, but while I was able to get a hand on it, it proved too quick and slipped into the underbrush.

Yesterday, with a bit of free time in the afternoon, I drove up the road about 15 miles to an old railroad bed that had been converted into a walking trail within the past few years. It rarely gets much use, so I figured that my chances for seeing some wildlife were decent.

Right off the bat I managed to catch a five-lined skink. About six inches long, this creature resembled a large, fat, short-legged lizard. Judging from its reaction – repeatedly biting me – it appeared unhappy with being disturbed. After snapping a few pictures of Plestiodon fasciatus I set the ingrate free and continued down the path.

After about a quarter mile I came across an old railroad bridge that crossed Crim’s Creek, located in Newberry County, SC. It’s a short bridge, about 30 feet in length; its rails were pulled up many years ago and wooden planking laid down to facilitate foot and bike traffic.

As I walked across watching the water flow along I caught sight of a black rat snake. It was curled around one of the bridge edgings that jutted out two feet or so over a dry part of the creek bed. I snapped a couple of pictures without startling the snake, which was about five feet in length, then walked past to find a stick.

(Having been bitten by several rat snakes, I know better than to simply try to grab at one when it’s facing me. I’m quick that way.)

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Storied structure renews role serving state

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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African recolonization: Bold idea, dim design

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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