Starting the Search for Our Lost Ancestors in Greenville, South Carolina
As George and I sped toward Greenville, the horizon looked hazy, even haunted.
But in the South, it seemed too tempting to apply “haunted” to nearly everything in its ghostly, undead history. Sometimes the physical beauty of Southern landscapes tantalized me so that I couldn’t resist what waited to ambush us from those thickets and rocky outcrops.
Without knowing it yet, I was already traveling in the path of my great-grandfather’s ghost, northward to where he’d fought in Tennessee. As a teenage Irish immigrant, he’d joined Ohio Infantry in the horrific Civil War battles of Franklin and Nashville. I imagined that bloody terrain, beyond the horizon, daring me to follow his footsteps.
But first, we had another errand here in South Carolina, tracing the steps of another ancestor lost to recorded history, George’s great-grandmother. We couldn’t prepare ourselves for what was next, what we’d find and what had vanished.
* * * *
The Greenville Cultural Exchange Center was a homey museum of the city’s African-American history, where founder and curator Ruth Ann Butler devoted her afternoon to George’s search for his great-grandmother. Though George had followed every lead we obtained at the South Carolina State Archives in Columbia, the results were pathways to dead ends. He still had only those rumors of her pioneering preaching. We did not have so much as a name, only George’s sister’s belief that their great-grandmother’s name started with an “L.” We had L.’s husband’s name, and her daughter’s—George’s grandmother’s—record of birth in Greenville, dated 1905. We knew that L. died young, because within a few years, her daughter was an orphan.
I felt as if we were on the edge of some crucial discovery. Ruth Ann continued with her roll call of Carolinian names if she were resurrecting a lost soul each time she found someone. “I have never not found a person,” she assured George.
As Ruth Ann and George continued checking, exhausting computerized lists, I became distracted but enthralled. The Cultural Exchange Center seemed exactly the right place to be, occupying a vintage house on a tranquil tree-lined street at the edge of Sterling, Greenville’s historically African-American neighborhood. Ruth Ann Butler had created the museum in 1987, inspired to preserve the city’s black history.
When George took a moment to enter notes on his tablet, he mentioned our book project to Ruth Ann and left me a moment to chat with her. It was a distinct possibility that George’s great-grandmother had attended an early, vanished version of the neighborhood’s first black high school. A later, larger incarnation of Sterling High School was legendary; Rev. Jesse Jackson was an alumnus. Ruth Ann, a one-time history teacher who’d written a history of the school, had herself attended Sterling High alongside Rev. Jackson. Ruth Ann told me that when school integration was on the horizon, Sterling High burned in 1967. Officially the cause was faulty wiring, but many considered it to have been racially motivated arson. At this point, Georgepulled me aside. “I think we’ve got all the information we’re going to get here,” he said.
Over that evening’s dinner at a Mexican joint, George got on my case about why I hadn’t jumped in sooner to interview Ruth Ann Butler about her own identity as a Southerner. “I gave you an opening, and you ignored it. You need to talk to more African Americans,” he said, as if I didn’t talk to one big skinny African American every day of this journey, the one across from me, climbing again atop his high race horse. He had a point, though; most of our conversations in Georgia and South Carolina had been with whites. But his reprimand sideswiped me because I had deliberately kept out of the discussion at the Cultural Exchange, thinking our mission there was to focus on the search for his great-grandmother and not my inquisitions of Southerners.
George scoffed. “You have to reach out more. You can’t dismiss the importance of black people.”
“Have a heart,” I told him, steaming behind my glass of Dos Equis. His stern, Mr. African-American-Know-It-All demeanor heightened my insecurities about our whole Southern identity project. I felt like the Clueless White Westerner again, tongue-tied, slow-witted and feckless. Whether planned or random, our encounters with Southern folks were unpredictable. Later I reflected that we were just irritable, waking to an uncomfortable truth. Though Ruth Ann Butler had never not found anyone, maybe George’s great-grandmother would be her first hopelessly lost soul. The center’s database only chased us into more false leads and dead ends. And it made me wonder what had compelled us to chase her ghost on our journey in the first place. What were we really looking for? Why had I become so invested in searching for a young woman whose footprints had long vanished? The Lady Reverend Starts-with-“L” was completely unconnected to me, and a stranger to her grand-grandson George as well.
What was I really doing down here in Dixie, anyway? Who the hell did I think I was, interpreting the entire freaking Southern U.S.A. in tinker-toy rental cars and budget motels? Ours, the Quality Inn, was hosting Gun, Knife & Militaria Show attendees from all over the region. That night, somebody punched through a wall a few doors down. In the morning, the manager repaired a kicked-in door next to ours. In the disrupted breakfast room, the trays of powdered eggs and instant grits were empty, every scrap, as if invading Gun and Knife Militarians had devoured all of Greenville at dawn.
* * * *
Next morning, in the Carolina Room of the Greenville County Public Library, no matter how much we might be shooting guns and knives in the dark, our search continued. When George asked about local orphanages, the librarian produced zip-locked packets of articles and clippings, a treasure trove of news about Upstate South Carolina orphan care from late 1800s through the 1950s. The daunting pile was instantly simplified when we realized that —of course —all orphanages had been segregated. Possibilities narrowed to the Colored Orphanage in Pickens, twenty miles northwest of Greenville. Only one tiny clipping, lonely in its zip-lock, referenced the Colored Orphanage in passing. Leafing through the white files for any accidental scrap of further reference to the black ones, I found a typical quote from one white orphans’ home, which stressed in cheerful prose the children’s great fortune to be housed with such caring folk: “Children from any section of our country are welcome provided they are fatherless, of tender years, and in need of aid.”
And provided they were white.
Encouraged even by the microscopic clipping about the Colored Orphanage, we left Greenville through a tangle of exurban sprawl to Pickens. I was psyched by the first humps of the Appalachian foothills, cloaked in color. Maple leaves sighed down, orange and scarlet.
Pickens was a small, quiet county seat, dating back to the 1820s, with handsome, historic brick storefronts lining its main street. Housed in the former jail, the county museum had an obliging curator who verified that a colored orphanage once existed here. But he did not have any specific knowledge of, or location for, the long-vanished institution.
So that’s how it was going to be. George could contact further leads from home in Colorado, but our face-to-face prospects here had gone cold. Aiming for our next destinations and appointments over the Blue Ridge into Tennessee, we took a detour up to Mount Sassafras, the very top of South Carolina.
On our Sassafras perch we peered southeast, so high and so distant from Greenville’s sprawl we saw no signs of human settlement. Maybe this was the way the Cherokee saw it, an endless forest, the far blue mountains merging into a flawless sky.
“Another absence instead of a presence,” George proclaimed, cryptic.
But I got it. Maybe. Black Americans’ search for their past was a reach into an absence–lost records, vanished orphanages and burned schools. The cruel paradox made me admire Ruth Ann Butler’s efforts even more, her forthright energy and joy a kind of poetry connecting the unconnected, calling home the names of the nameless.