Keeping a lonely vigil over antebellum church, area history

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Well back in the Allendale County countryside sits Smyrna Baptist Church. The antebellum church hasn’t held services since 1958 and today has but a single member on its rolls. Yet, there was a time when Smyrna Baptist, like so many rural Southern churches, was a vibrant, thriving house of worship.

Today, Hugh Gray, a cotton farmer and former Allendale County councilman, takes it upon himself to keep watch over the church. He grew up attending Smyrna Baptist, his family is buried in its graveyard and he’s purposely kept his name on the church rolls, making him the lone member, even though he attends Beech Branch Baptist Church, near Luray, S.C., about 15 miles away.

Gray helps keep up the grounds and watches out for troublemakers. A couple of residents closer to the church call him whenever a vehicle stops at the church.

Gray said individuals have broken into the venerable structure, stolen pews and otherwise caused trouble.

“More often than not when I get a call that someone’s down here at the church, they’re up to no good,” he said.

Constructed somewhere between 1827 and 1848 (dates vary according to sources), Smyrna Baptist was organized in 1827 and originally known as Kirkland Church, after its first minister. By the early 1830s, the church was big enough that it could afford to try three members for heresy regarding communion.

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In the end, the trio, a husband, wife and the wife’s sister-in-law, were excommunicated and would go on to form a nearby church, Antioch Christian Church, which operated from 1835 until 1939.

Smyrna Baptist is described a meeting house-style structure, featuring a front with a central Palladian window “flanked by balancing nine-paneled entrance doors with transoms.”

The windows have louvered shutters with eyebrow-type windows located above each window. The structure’s original roof was covered with metal in the 1970s. Smyrna Baptist was placed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 1976.

Among those buried in its graveyard are Dr. Benjamin Lawton (1822-1879), a local physician and planter who signed the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession and served as a captain in the 3rd South Carolina Cavalry Regiment; and Lt. Col. Benjamin B. Kirkland (1838-1885), who served in the 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment and was wounded at Second Manassas.

There’s also a memorial to William Baker Rice Jr., an Allendale County native who volunteered for the Royal Air Force during World War II and was killed in action on April 28, 1942, over what was then Bengal, India, and is buried in Chittagong War Cemetery, in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The decline of Smyrna Baptist and hundreds of other rural churches across the region reflect the migration that’s taken place during the past century as significant numbers of Southerners have packed up from rustic locations and made their way to larger towns and cities, be they medium-sized polities such as Columbia, SC, Knoxville, Tenn., or Richmond, Va., or large metropolises such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Jacksonville.

Smyrna Baptist and churches like it reflect an era that’s long passed. Hugh Gray is doing what he can to keep his small church from falling victim to the ravages of time and vandals, but one has to wonder who will take over once he inevitably joins his family in the church’s graveyard at some unknown point in the future.

And who is looking after all the many small churches that don’t have someone like Hugh Gray to watch over them?

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Cimarron: Concept of Panhandle state nixed by political squabbling


Of the many lonely stretches found across the United States, few match the 5,749-square-mile rectangle known as the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Composed of three counties, today the Panhandle is home to about 28,500 people, less than half as many as when Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907.

The region suffered the ravages of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s as severe drought and blinding dust storms led many to leave for greener pastures.

The Panhandle is a relatively isolated region, dotted with abandoned buildings and hearty residents. Today, it seems difficult to believe that there was once a serious push to make the strip of land a separate territory, with the ultimate goal of statehood.

Originally part of Texas, the strip was surrendered in 1850 as a result of the Missouri Compromise. Texas, a slave state, had to give up the swath of land because federal law under the compromise prohibited slavery north of the 36°30’ parallel.

As a result, the region became known as a “neutral strip,” and was without state or territorial ownership. As evidence that advertising agencies did not hold the sway that they do today, the area was officially called the “Public Land Strip” and was commonly referred to as “No Man’s Land.”

Without a legal authority to provide oversight, the ensuing 40 years were full of confusion and turmoil.

Ranchers began moving into the region following the Civil War but officially the land could not be settled until it had been surveyed by the US government. Still, settlers flooded in, with many coming from Kansas.

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Interracial couple survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow

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A 155-year-old structure located in rural South Carolina embodies the conflicted racial legacy evident in South Carolina and possibly other parts of the South, if not the nation.

The Jacob Bedenbaugh House, built around 1860, isn’t noteworthy for its age or its architectural style. Described as a detached two-story traditional “I” house with a modified L-shaped plan, the dwelling, in serious need of restoration, is located along a country highway about five miles east of Prosperity, SC.

What prompted the US Department of the Interior to the place the home on the National Register of Historic Places is the individuals who lived in the structure during its first 55-75 years.

Jacob Belton Bedenbaugh was a white South Carolinian born in 1833. His common-law wife Sarah Bedenbaugh, described as mulatto, was initially a slave purchased by Jacob. Sometime between 1860 and 1864, the two entered into a relationship.

Despite the increasing difficulties inherent with pursuing an interracial relationship in the Deep South in the years following the Civil War – not that it was a walk in the park during or before – the Bedenbaughs remained together in the house as a couple from at least 1864 until Jacob’s death in 1915 and had eight children.

But going against prevailing social mores didn’t come without a price. In July 1890, they were indicted and tried for “fornication” due to the fact that they living together. Being an interracial couple undoubtedly contributed to the decision to prosecute.

It’s unclear from a search of the Internet what the outcome of the case was, but one should bear in mind that South Carolina’s political climate was changing rapidly in 1890 as the Conservatives who had come to power in 1877 following the end of Reconstruction were about to be turned out of office by populist Ben Tillman, who was elected later that year, and his supporters.

Tillman, a virulent racist, was a leading force behind the state’s 1895 constitution, which solidified Jim Crowism in the state and, among other things, prohibited interracial marriage.

Legally, the couple could have married during the war, Reconstruction and immediate-post Reconstruction period, provided they had been able to find a minister willing to perform the service, but the Tillman Constitution forever barred Jacob and Sarah Bedenbaugh from being wedded.

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Aging monument recalls calamitous era of sea travel


Amid the picturesque graveyard surrounding Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry is a marble obelisk blackened with age. It’s a memorial not only to a handful of parishioners who died in one of the 19th centuries worst sea disasters but a reminder of just how dangerous travel by ship was at one time.

Eight names appear on the 15-foot marker, including that of Rev. James Joseph Murray, 43; his wife Mary, 38; daughter Elizabeth, 15; and son William, 11, victims of the sinking of the steamship Pulaski on June 14, 1838.

In addition to Murray and his family, Margaret Seabrook Mikell, 31; Joseph Edings Seabrook, 15; Sara Ann Edings, 27; and Sarah Josephine Edings, 5, are also listed. They were among approximately 130 individuals who died when the ship, which started from Savannah, Ga., June 13 en route to Baltimore, Md., was rent by a boiler explosion and foundered 30 miles off the North Carolina coast.

The death toll was said to have been the greatest suffered to that point by a steam-powered vessel.

Murray, Mikell, Edings and Seabrook are common names throughout both the graveyard and the region, and it’s likely the loss of the Pulaski touched most, if not all of the church’s parishioners in one way or another.

To give an idea of how common major maritime disasters were a century or more ago, the loss of the Pulaski doesn’t even rank among the top 80 deadliest ship disasters of the 19th century. In fact, if one looks at Wikipedia’s list of 19th century maritime disasters ranked by lives lost, the Pulaski isn’t mentioned at all, which leaves one wondering just how many other significant tragedies of that era have been forgotten.

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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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In Vermont, a solution goes in search of a problem

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In a nation of perpetually aggrieved there is diminishing room for reason.

Consider the “controversy” taking place in South Burlington, Vt.

For more than 50 years the South Burlington High School has used the “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before.

However, now there is a movement to do away with the moniker because “rebel” is said to be associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy, a former teacher at the school told the Burlington Free Press.

“It was unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s still connected to that,” said Bob Walsh, who taught at the school for 18 years. “I think it’s time for us to recognize the fact that this symbol is inappropriate and it’s time to change.”

Walsh’s comments came during an August school board meeting. He was the only member of the public to speak against the school’s nickname.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, board chairwoman, said when she grew up in the area and participated in events against South Burlington High, she never recalled any reference to the Rebels being affiliated with the Confederacy.

Julie Beatty, another school board member and a South Burlington High alum, said she never associated the “Rebels” nickname with the Confederacy during her time as a student, and said she doesn’t think students today associate it with the Confederate States of America.

The board decided to gather more public opinion before making a decision. Young said the topic will be open for public comment at the next board meeting, which will be held tomorrow.

What Walsh and others who advocate a break with the name “Rebels” seem to overlook is that not only did South Burlington split from Burlington, but Vermont itself was established by many individuals who were considered “rebels.”

Vermont was founded by Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden and others who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York,” according to historian Christian Fritz.

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

And, of course, rebellion was the dominant theme in the founding of the United States of America, with the Founding Fathers undoubtedly being seen as “rebels” by Great Britain.

(Top: Scoreboard at South Burlington (Vt.) High School, with nickname “Rebels” evident.)

St. Andrew’s Society: Bettering Upstate NY for 200+ years

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Were it not for the striking metalwork atop the door on a four-story brownstone, the structure at 150 Washington Ave. in Albany, NY, would have gone unnoticed in a city full of beautiful old edifices.

In the grillwork is a bronze cast of St. Andrew, one of the Twelve Apostles, carrying a cross amid leaves and branches, on a block. The image stands in front of a banner which bears the words “St. Andrew’s Society”.

For more than 200 years, the St. Andrew’s Society of the City of Albany (NY) has aided people near and far, from denizens of the New York capital to inhabitants of the distant Scottish Highlands.

The society was begun in November 1803 when 41 “Scotchmen,” as they called themselves then, met at the corner of State and North Pearl streets in Albany to found the city’s St. Andrew’s Society, named for the patron saint of Scotland.

At the time Albany was a frontier settlement, with just 5,500 residents.

The founders were merchants, physicians, clergymen and politicians, men who sought to begin an organization for “social and benevolent purposes.”

“They enjoyed life, but they could not stand still when fellow Scots were in need,” according to information found on the society’s website.

The society’s motto is “Relieve the Distressed.” In its first 100 years, it concentrated on immigrant Scots who needed help to find shelter, money and assistance in finding work.

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