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.
Under the Rebel Flag in Columbia, South Carolina
The Confederate flag still waved high beside the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, next to a statue of a rebel fallen to the Lost Cause.
That flag marked the epicenter of the capital city. I remembered the national controversy, in 2000, when, after a damaging boycott of South Carolina sponsored by the NAACP, the rebel flag was removed from the top of the State House dome to this place on the grounds. Even this small compromise, moving the flag a few hundred yards, was hard-fought. The conflict continued into the 2010’s without resolution. It underscored the passion of some white South Carolinians for their slaveholding heritage. State Representative Leon Howard believed the taxpayers deserved better than more of South Carolina’s “confederacy of the mind.”
The state’s Conservative Action Council still wanted to restore the flag to the top of the dome, staging protests in full Confederate regalia. Their chairman asserted that the flag’s removal was “ethnic cleansing” for European-Americans and claimed that whites no longer had a place in a multicultural society. His secretary added that the rebel flag “stands for the Confederate troops who sacrificed so much and in many cases paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we know today.”
Amid the State House’s subtropical gardens, a 2001 memorial by a Denver sculptor paid homage to African-American contributions. I could see in Ed Dwight’s bronze frieze those who really paid the price for the freedoms we know today. I couldn’t think of a single freedom—or a single advance or achievement—we gained from the Confederacy’s secession. Dwight’s frieze choked me up with its upright truths. In a wide V, the figures spanned the centuries: from transports of bound slaves, to nineteenth century freedom fighters, contemporary judges, athletes, astronauts (of which Dwight himself was the among the first), and, as George said, “just plain ol’ people at work, the ones we sometimes forget to commemorate.” Beside the bronze panels, Dwight’s memorial included a map in black marble depicting the Atlantic slave trade, a gathering of lines linking West African nations to a tight web of netting, cinched at Charleston harbor. I was glad South Carolina had the guts to present this ugly aspect of its true history, even if it was tucked beside the State House. But why wasn’t this the memorial occupying Columbia’s busiest intersection, beside the Confederate battle flag?
The Civil War brought the near-total destruction of antebellum Columbia. In February 1865, General Sherman’s scorched-earth march took a left turn after Savannah and cut a diagonal back inland to destroy the capital of the state where the Confederacy was born. A widespread fire, its causes still controversial (of course), preceded Sherman’s approach. A Union division advanced ahead of the incendiary General and either started or fought the ensuing conflagration of Columbia. When Confederate forces retreated, they reputedly set cotton bales alight, adding to the flames. Sherman finished the job the day after the great fire, destroying every remaining vestige of the city’s transportation infrastructure and industries.
The city never fully recovered. Unlike Macon, Savannah, and Charleston, with their extensive historic zones, Columbia had only a patchwork of remnants. Maybe Columbia needed progressive goals, not another debate on flying the rebel flag.
* * * *
Before we left Columbia, George needed to visit the State Archives. He wanted to search upstate South Carolina for traces of his great-grandmother, (All George knew was that she may have been a pioneering female African-American preacher and did not even have her first name.) We hoped that this state agency, charged with preserving records of all kinds, might have the genealogical key. But first we had to find the facility, leaving Columbia to meander into the forested hills north of the city where we circled a gleaming, curvaceous complex in wonderment. “This can’t be it,” we both blurted, astonished at the scale of the place, the sterile plaza, the sea-green wall of windows, the long setback arrayed with concrete, barrel-style barriers.
Inside, the state archives offices welcomed us immediately. The state archivist explained the course of other such obscure ancestor searches. “It’s so hard when there are no clear paper records,” he said, “because birth certificates were rare before the early 20th Century. But it’s not impossible.” Around us, other visitors, often elder and middle-aged family pairings, worked away diligently at genealogical records. Our archivist hit upon a new, last angle, telling George to try church records around Greenville, where family lore believed his great-grandmother had settled.
Leaving the records offices, we admired the archivists’ professionalism, the time and effort taken with outsiders, no questions asked, the very model of a first-rate, egalitarian government service. The scale of the place puzzled us, this magnificent, modern, self-contained palace of records, expensive for any low-tax state on Great Recession starvation budgets. Then, crossing the enormous, bomb-proofed plaza, all so far from the central city, it hit me. I recalled the tales of chaotic property claims in the post Civil War Low Country, how legal documents had been shipped to secure, inland, soon-to-be-burned Columbia for safekeeping. Given the state had been threatened with outright destruction in the Civil War, it was no wonder South Carolina had housed its records in this tucked-away, terror-proofed facility.
The air was heavy and faintly smoky over the capital, just over the wooded horizon. The afternoon’s foggy drizzle evaporated into red-filtered haze. I realized that without planning to, George and I had followed Sherman as if on a march ourselves, from the outskirts of Atlanta down through his fake-out in Macon to his real target in Savannah. Now, we’d ended up tracing Sherman’s cinder trail to his final bonfire here in Columbia. Imagine the ashes, I thought, on the day Sherman’s men torched the city, and/or Confederate soldiers lit cotton bales to deny him the spoils of war.
A citizen fleeing Columbia’s destruction would’ve tasted ashes even on this distant hilltop, ashes still sifting over all that we have won and lost.
Where the Hell Was Everybody?
Heading out of Charleston, detemined to find South Carolina’s “wild” landscapes, George and I passed through north end neighborhoods few tourists explore. An easy stroll from the groomed, cobblestoned historic district, narrow streets squeezed scruffy multi-family conversions and shacks into charmless blocks. Stray dogs wandered empty, weedy lots. Here and there, a human being actually emerged, wandering alone or waiting for a bus against the slap of traffic. The solitary faces were almost always black. Where had we seen this before? “Macon,” George said, “just southeast of the historic homes area. And the south side of Savannah, exactly the same. City neighborhoods that look like rural shantytowns.”
We would end up in truly rural shantytowns after we fought our way out of town, surrendering to the ease of Interstate 26. A diagonal straight to the capital city, the freeway cut across the Low Country’s dense woodland, heavy traffic zooming through what appeared to be a complete wilderness. Only the fast food signs and oil company logos poking above the greenery told us we’d returned to Anywhere America. This generic, corporate-logo landscape blurred on, flat and featureless, so we decided to abort the autobahn. We escaped on a rural route that would wind to Columbia via Congaree National Park.
Almost immediately, on the two-lane blacktop toward tiny St. Matthews, we re-entered the South. The forested “wilderness” skirting the Interstate was nothing but a green façade screening the Carolina reality of pastureland surrounding shabby, isolated farmhouses and rural holdings. Every inch of it looked claimed and settled, whether tended or neglected.
South Carolina as a whole ranked 42nd in median income and this region was even poorer than the state average. St. Matthews existed on barely two-thirds of that. Forlorn and discarded-looking, the town was blur of country highways emptying into long-gone businesses and abandoned gas stations. As far as real estate values, a MasterCard could mortgage a house or trailer, or both. Poor as it was, Calhoun County was not as desperate as its neighbors, ranked “critical” in poverty rates.
Outside St. Matthews, heading into open country, we found a surreal, white-tufted landscape cut into the dense pine and beech forests. Here the white fields would be intense and bright; there they’d fade, the tufts just emerging. “Cotton!” George called out. “It’s cotton. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing before.”
The fields, in several stages of growth, had a vivid, fantastic quality, especially against the dark, lurking borders of forest. Completely giving in to our gee-whiz touristic status, we stopped the car to take pictures of…well, cotton. Soon we passed small, nameless settlements lining the obscure road, just as shacky and run-down as those poor neighborhoods in Macon and Charleston, the faces just as African-American. But instead of those urban zones’ emptied disquiet, these crossroads villages hopped with agrarian busyness. Men hoisted bales onto awaiting trucks and warehouses teemed with movement. Women in storefront snack bars stirred steaming pots while kids criss-crossed dirt turnouts on bikes.
Even among Southern states, South Carolina ranks high in its percentage of rural residents, around 40 percent. George and I wandered deep within that world now, devoid of fast food, franchise services, and big-box retailers. There were no stressed-out, hunched humanoids staring at tiny screens; around us, people moved with exuberant steps and emphatic gestures. This cotton country had an eternal, yet improvisational feel, as if the fields had been here for centuries, unchanged, while the crooked wood-slat shacks might disappear tomorrow without a trace.
Nearby, after several twists, turns, and U turns, we discovered what the land would look like if the settlements disappeared. Congaree National Park was so obscure it didn’t even appear on Google’s map of South Carolina. Completely unlike the National Parks in the West, usually set off from human encroachment, Congaree existed amid private holdings, just another turn-off on a rural lane lined by mailboxes and churches. We pulled into an empty parking lot and, alone, found an abandoned visitor’s center—all the opposite of Western parks, where finding parking could be a crisis, where crowds thronged displays and besieged rangers for information.
With an entire National Park to ourselves on a mellow, warm afternoon, we grabbed a paper guide and toured a boardwalk loop. At last, a hike! A very easy, flat one, organized as a raised-boardwalk nature trail, it became our education in southeastern trees: beech, loblolly, canebrake, tupelo, pawpaw, and dog hobble. At the very verge of the swampy Low Country and the rolling Piedmont uplands, Congaree specialized in mucky bogs and drying seepages. Everywhere, mossy, elegant branches spoke of patience and slow time, the secret work of heat, sluggish water, and abundant natural compost. Congaree’s “champion trees,” the tupelos reached higher than any other species east of the Mississippi River. Besides its prolific aquatic and avian species–a globally important bird area–Congaree also preserved North America’s largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest, whichwas almost lost in the 1960’s to logging. This International Biosphere Reserve was such a beautiful, serene place, such an important transition between two major biospheres, and a major preserve in its own right. So where the hell was everybody?
Given that the Federal wildlands of the South were so small and hemmed-in by settlements, I wondered why they weren’t thronged by nature lovers. When I’d asked Southerners about adjacent wildlands, some answered, “But why would you want to go there? It’s just a swamp/a thicket/a tangle. Full of bugs and nasty critters. I’ve never been out there, myself.”
Rambling the last stretch of our loop, a ranger approached us, having just pulled off her official jacket. Surprised to encounter two Yankee strangers, she immediately made sure we had all the information we needed, and in an intimate, chatty tone, shared her love of the place with us. Off duty and ending her day with a ramble around her workplace just out of sheer adoration, she was making me fall in love with the South, and Congaree, and tree-hugging rangers.
The ranger raised her bare arms to the soft breeze and the sun sinking behind the high canopy spooky with Spanish moss. She smiled big and wished us a good visit. At last, in the closest thing to a wild place we could find in the Low Country, here was another Southerner I could understand.