The Barnwell County Museum celebrated Black History Month with its first in-person celebration since the pandemic.
“African-American history is not regulated to just one month! African-American history is 365 days a year. African-American history is not regulated to individual achievements and honors. African-American history is the story of the African American experience which is family and community rooted. African American history is not regulated to just the African-American community. African-American history is Barnwell County history, South Carolina history, and American history.”
Those were the words of Orangeburg native Dr. Walter Curry, who served as guest speaker at the Black History Month program on Sunday, Feb. 19. He shared highlights from his two books telling stories of notable relatives and enslaved ancestors in Aiken, Barnwell, Orangeburg, and Richland counties.
“African-American history is very storied and filled with representations of the African-American experience. Representation of the African-American experience is culturally, socially, and historically rooted. For me, the representation of the African-American experience is family. The family is the most important institution in our community. In context, the family is the intellectual foundation in which we learn about the African-American experience through our ancestors and relatives,” he said.
Researching his own family’s history has helped Curry learn about some of his ancestors, including some who were enslaved, some who were sharecroppers, and some who were famous musicians.
“Through my family history, I have learned about the enslaved experience of my ancestor, Lavinia Corley Thompson. When Lavinia was old in age, she shared with her grandchildren about her enslaved experience living on the Corley Plantation which was located in Barnwell District near Windsor,” said Curry.
Lavinia was sold to a slaveowner in Florida for $100. At the auction site, she wore a white dress, but when she became defiant and told the slave auctioneer, “You might as well sell me over because I ain’t a go,” the slave auctioneer beat her down so bad that her dress became red with blood”.
“Her defiance saved her from being sold to Florida and demonstrated her resistance to slavery,” said Curry.
He also learned about the experience of ancestor Martha Kitchings Seawright Ellison and her family.
“As sharecroppers, the family was obliged to provide a share of the crop to the landowner and virtually owned nothing. Sharecropping was another form of enslavement. Some African-American female sharecroppers like Martha, who were siblings in large families, discovered marriage as a means of resistance to sharecropping because in their view, marriage was economic means to marry a landowner, tenant farmer, or a merchant who were not sharecroppers,” said Curry.
They were sharecroppers who lived and worked on the Phillips Plantation during the Reconstruction Era. This plantation encompassed the northern part of Williston to the South Edisto River.
“There are a lot of people on Highway 39 (toward Springfield), but they don’t know that area was a large plantation,” Curry said.
The plantation house was burned and looted by Gen. Kilpatrick’s troops during the Civil War. The Phillips family had to move into the slave quarters because “they couldn’t take care of themselves,” Curry said.
He said the “unsung hero” is Martha’s father, Sam Kitchings. The single father raised his children, all under the age of 21, during the difficulties of sharecropping life. The late Belton Tobin, a descendant of Sam’s son, Wheeler Kitchings, was a decorated Army veteran and the first African-American assistant principal of Blackville-Hilda High School.
“Through my family history, I learned about the experience of relatives during the Jim Crow era who used their talent to launch successful careers in music,” said Curry.
This includes his cousin Tommy Ellison, the legendary “Mr. Superstar of Gospel”. Raised by his grandparents while working in the fields, the Salley native boasted that someday he would be famous. In 1960, Tommy along with other talented gospel singers joined together and formed their own group named “Tommy Ellison & The Five Singing Stars”. One of the original members of the group was Williston native Sam Williams who played an important role in the group’s success.
After discussing his own family, Curry challenged those in attendance to think about how to expand Black History Month into their own families and communities by:
• Identifying African-American historical sites and developing literature about those sites.
• Identifying individuals, regardless of race, who contributed to the advancement of African-Americans in their community and developing literature about them.
• Collaborating with local schools to promote African-American history by donating content-related resources, sponsoring field trips to African-American sites, and providing guest speakers.
• Sponsoring oral history projects that captures the lived experiences of African-Americans.
• Developing historical exhibitions focusing on local African-American history.
• Documenting church history including surveying and preserving your cemeteries, in addition to, oral history projects for present and future generations.
• Conducting oral history projects by interviewing family members, especially the elders and individuals who are connected to families.
There are many resources out there to help research one’s own family history, including churches, genealogical societies, and records held by families of former slave owners. Another resource is the Aiken Center for African-American History, Art & Culture, which recently received a donation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for equipment and other items. The Center has access to digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records, some dating to near the end of the Civil War.
“It’s tedious to do the research but it can be done. There are a lot of sources out there that you can get information to trace your enslaved ancestors beyond 1870,” said Curry.
He left the audience with a quote from Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the acclaimed father of African-American history, who said, “For me, education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.”
Curry’s books, “The Awakening: The Seawright-Ellison Family Saga, Vol. 1, A Narrative History” and “The Thompson Family: Untold Stories from the Past” are available for purchase on Amazon.