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Sumter County, located in South Carolina’s midlands, is about an hour-and-a-half from the Atlantic coastline in one direction and from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the other. Named after General Thomas Sumter, the “Fighting Gamecock” of Revolutionary War fame, it’s a place like many in the historic Black Belt, the stretch of former slave-holding plantations that extends from Texas to Delaware. Sumter County has also been the traditional home to a community of dark-skinned people known historically and derisively as &ld...
Sumter County, located in South Carolina’s midlands, is about an hour-and-a-half from the Atlantic coastline in one direction and from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the other. Named after General Thomas Sumter, the “Fighting Gamecock” of Revolutionary War fame, it’s a place like many in the historic Black Belt, the stretch of former slave-holding plantations that extends from Texas to Delaware. Sumter County has also been the traditional home to a community of dark-skinned people known historically and derisively as “the Turks.” The story of this community (who prefer to be called “the Turkish people”) shows how hard it can be to be considered "American," even when roots run deep.
The "Turk" community has always traced its history back to an Ottoman refugee who reputedly served the colonial cause in the Revolutionary War. A brief version of their traditional narrative holds that a “Caucasian of Arab descent,” known as Joseph Benenhaley (or Yusef ben Ali, possibly his Ottoman name), made his way to South Carolina, where he served as a scout for General Sumter during the American Revolution. The grateful general then gave Benenhaley some land on his plantation to farm and raise a family, the story went. A few outsiders married in; but most who identified with the ostracized community and their progeny considered themselves people of Turkish descent. Amazingly, they persevered as an enclosed society—numbering several hundred persons in the area by the mid-20th century.
For many years the Turkish people’s origin story was usually considered no more than myth, a fable concocted to sustain an out-group through unpleasant realities of hard history. In 1973, a historian put it this way: “A stranger visiting Sumter County today may come across a baffling breed called ‘Turks’…. So meager are the facts relating to them that the wildest conjectures, based on what must surely be flight of fancy and geographical ignorance, have been advanced to support their origin.” Still, members of the group persisted in claiming Turkish descent, and now we—a political scientist and a Turkish descendant—have confirmed the group’s traditional narrative and beleaguered history, through original research and oral interviews.
The Turkish people didn’t fit cleanly into the broader black-versus-white paradigm in that part of South Carolina. They adhered to an ancestral understanding that they were “white people,” but outside the Dalzell area, where most lived, they were shunned. Like their black neighbors, they were subject to insults, intimidation and systemic oppression. The Turkish people had to go to federal court to be able to send their children to “white schools” during the 1950s, and only in the past few decades have they begun to enjoy things like getting good jobs in mainstream society, accessing health care at local hospitals, shopping at community businesses, or participating in Little League baseball, without being turned away or treated as second-class citizens.
So who, exactly, were these Turkish people? Were they really an Ottoman Turk’s descendants who had endured as a distinct ethnic community, against long odds, in backwoods South Carolina?
The Turkish people have always been extremely skittish about genetic testing, but we [authors of South Carolina's Turkish People: A History and Ethnology] obtained DNA sequences for eight direct descendants of the supposed patriarch, Joseph Benenhaley. Though such testing has its problems, it can be useful in combination with other research. In this case, the results for the eight subjects were consistent with ancestry including a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/North African progenitor, with substantial white European admixture, some evidence of Native American linkages, and no significant sub-Saharan African contribution.
We also compiled a genealogical census of 270 Joseph Benenhaley descendants who lived in the Dalzell area during the 1800s, a number we deemed sufficient to judge the social character of that family settlement in its formative generations. The accounting showed important patterns: People with the Benenhaley last name comprised slightly over half (51 percent) of the individuals in the group, and the six intermarried families accounted for almost all of the names in the confined community. This was consistent with the stories we’d heard about a community that has always revolved around the family, their school, their church, their farms, and whatever jobs they could find in the Dalzell area.
Finally, we surveyed graveyards at the two churches that served as principal places of worship for the Turkish people during the 1900s; and our count of Benenhaleys buried in both was equally impressive. Benenhaleys again comprised a slight majority (51 percent) of interred individuals, and the same six family surnames accounted for virtually all of the individuals resting in peace in those cemeteries. Also, few individuals with Turkish-community names were buried outside the Dalzell area, attesting to the isolation of that group. All these findings, and others, suggest very strongly that the Turkish people did indeed endure as an enclosed ethnic community—originating from Joseph Benenhaley and known as “the Turks”—in rural South Carolina for almost two centuries.
Getting Turkish elders to talk about themselves was a difficult task—bad memories still bothered many of them. As one scholar reported in the 1970s, “The mood of the community strictly opposes any sort of historical investigation. The people will tell any would-be historian that they don’t know anything, don’t think that anyone else does either, don’t see any point in it, and think that he should go talk to some other member of the community.” However, four brave souls—“Boaz,” “Helen,” “Jean,” and “Tonie” (all adopting pseudonyms because feelings still run high in this area)—talked to us about their personal lives and community experience.
Our discussions with the Turkish people about their origins rambled, owing to the fuzzy interplay of ancestry and ethnicity. Still, all four stated that they were white people of Turkish descent; and they related their origins to General Sumter having brought their ancestors to Sumter County. Boaz explained their confidence and pride in the traditional narrative. “I assume I accepted it just like anyone else who would have been from whatever ethnic background they were from,” he said. “That’s who I am…and I hold my head high.”
Regarding their isolation, Boaz speculated that each ethnic group in Sumter County probably just felt more comfortable being with people like themselves: “I don’t want to have anything to do with you just as much as you don’t want to have anything to do with me,” he said. But despite his explanation of mutual disdain, it was clear that Boaz, and the others, viewed white discrimination as the main cause of the extended, lonely history of this community. He noted, with sadness, that, “the Turkish boys and girls were not allowed on teams like the American Legion baseball teams and those types of things. The segregation was almost as bad as the segregation of the blacks. Not as bad, but bad enough.”
Tonie remembered having to stay out of school for a year during the integration movement. “It was awful,” she said. “You never knew what they were going to say to you or what they were going to do to you. Even the teachers were prejudiced. Traumatic. Kids calling you ‘Turk.’ If they were the only ones on a seat, they would put their books on the other side of the bus so that you couldn’t sit there, and dare you to move them.” Helen told a story about a white hair stylist who wouldn’t cut a dark Turkish teenager’s hair. Jean described a traumatic Ku Klux Klan rampage during which somebody burned a cross on her father’s yard. “We were afraid to go outside the house,” she recalled.
When asked about their relations with black people, the Turkish elders had little to say and spoke nothing negative. They would compare the ways whites treated them to the ways whites treated blacks. Apparently, the two minority populations had always harbored resentment against the white establishment, and this served to mute whatever grievances they had against each other.
Today’s Turkish people are not as closed off as in the past—life is better in the 21st century. Most now marry outsiders. Many have moved to other areas, either to start a family or to attend college and begin careers. Those who have stayed say that, generally, they are “treated right” in Sumter County. The strange story of the Turkish people is important, not only for the belated recognition and dignity of that community but also as a compelling addition to our understanding of the American experience. The persistence of Joseph Benenhaley’s descendants—and the experiences of people like Boaz, Helen, Jean, and Tonie—illustrate that for some people, becoming American is a long and difficult ordeal.
Glen Browder is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama and professor emeritus of political science and American democracy at Jacksonville State University. Terri Ann Ognibene is a Spanish teacher at Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia. They are co-authors of South Carolina's Turkish People: A History and Ethnology.
A six-figure prize-winning lottery ticket was recently sold in South Carolina, according to officials. Now the search is on for the $200,000 prize winner.The winning ticket was sold at a gas station/convenience store in the Midlands, South Carolina Education Lottery officials said Monday in a news release.The winning Palmetto Cash 5 ticket was ...
A six-figure prize-winning lottery ticket was recently sold in South Carolina, according to officials. Now the search is on for the $200,000 prize winner.
The winning ticket was sold at a gas station/convenience store in the Midlands, South Carolina Education Lottery officials said Monday in a news release.
The winning Palmetto Cash 5 ticket was sold at Golden Grocery at 3909 Camden Highway in Sumter County, according to the release. That’s in the Dalzell area, about 5 miles from Shaw Air Force Base.
The ticket for Friday’s drawing matched all five numbers drawn to win the $100,000 top prize, officials said. Because the ticket holder bought the powered-up option for an additional $1, the prize was doubled to $200,000 when a two was drawn, according to the release.
The winning numbers from last Friday’s drawing were 5, 9, 18, 31, 34 and Power-Up: 2.
The winner has 180 days to claim the prize, according to lottery officials.
The winner will be allowed to retain some privacy, as South Carolina is one of eight states — along with Delaware, Kansas, Georgia, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio and Texas — that allow lottery winners to remain anonymous.
The odds of winning $200,000 playing Palmetto Cash 5 are 1-in-878,399, according to the release.
“Sign the back of your ticket and put it in a safe location until you’re ready to come forward to claim the prize,” lottery officials said.
For complete information on claiming prizes, go to sceducationlottery.com.
Golden Grocery will receive a commission of $2,000 when the winning ticket is turned in to lottery officials.
In addition to the $200,000 winning game, more than 5,700 Palmetto Cash 5 players in South Carolina won prizes in Friday’s drawing, according to the release. More than 3,900 players bought the additional Power-Up option and will have their winnings doubled, officials said.
There were no other top-prize winners in the Palmetto Cash 5 drawing over the past two days.
McCORMICK, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - The pandemic has brought on a alarming increase in alcohol and substance abuse, but one man is hoping to make a difference.Down a long driveway in McCormick County, you’ll find a house, but it’s not just any house; it’s a house meant for healing.“God gave me a vision about two and a half years ago” said Will Dalzell. “And I argued with God about two years about it, had all the excuses in the world why I didn’t want to and couldn’t do it. And finally, ...
McCORMICK, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - The pandemic has brought on a alarming increase in alcohol and substance abuse, but one man is hoping to make a difference.
Down a long driveway in McCormick County, you’ll find a house, but it’s not just any house; it’s a house meant for healing.
“God gave me a vision about two and a half years ago” said Will Dalzell. “And I argued with God about two years about it, had all the excuses in the world why I didn’t want to and couldn’t do it. And finally, one morning I got up and God basically told me, it’s time.”
Will Dalzell is the founder of the GameChanger Foundation. Today, he opened the first house of his 150-acre drug and alcohol addiction long-term recovery program.
“It was pretty amazing. I was a little overwhelmed with all the support that I had from family and people that have been involved. I mean it’s really special” said Dalzell.
A special project, years in the making and it couldn’t come at a better time.
“It’s been tough, I mean a lot of these people have been isolated and taken away from places, a lot of places aren’t open, and we just want to give these guys a new chance, and a new chance at life” said Dalzell.
The pandemic has worsened addiction across the country. The number of drug related deaths has increased too. Aiken County has seen more than 51 accidental overdose deaths this year. That’s almost double the total from last year.
Richmond County Coroner, Mark Bowen, says he’s seen 54 drug related deaths so far, and 30 are pending toxicology results. Bowen says out of those 30, most will likely be overdoses.
“I struggled with drugs and alcohol for about from about 15 [years old] to about 28 [years old] and woke up in a jail cell in Greene County, Georgia-- I had lost everything” said Dalzell.
Since recovering from loss and addiction, Dalzell is planting the roots so that others can grow.
“I just want to see God work miracles in their lives like he has in mine” he said.
The first seven men will move into the house on January 1st, and stay a minimum of one year.
While on the path towards recovery, they will learn different trades, financial skills and attend fatherhood classes. The house opening today was just the first step, Dalzell plans to build at least seven more houses, a tree farm and training facility over the next few years.
To learn more about GameChangers visit the website here.
Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.
SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. —A South Carolina sheriff is warning drug dealers and users in his county after three arrests and more than $250,000 worth of fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine were seized in a bust.Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis called the drugs "poison," and one of his investigators described fentanyl as "Public enemy number one," according to a post on Facebook.The bust, which happened on May 1, came after search warrants were served at two houses in the county. ...
SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. —
A South Carolina sheriff is warning drug dealers and users in his county after three arrests and more than $250,000 worth of fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine were seized in a bust.
Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis called the drugs "poison," and one of his investigators described fentanyl as "Public enemy number one," according to a post on Facebook.
The bust, which happened on May 1, came after search warrants were served at two houses in the county. The location of the homes was not released.
Sumter County Sheriff's Office
It was the second time in two weeks that Sumter County investigators and deputies have made arrests involving a large quantity of drugs that include fentanyl and heroin, deputies said.
During the search of the homes, deputies said they found a total of 644 grams of methamphetamine with an approximate street value of $32,200; 286 grams of cocaine worth about $28,600 on the street; and 1320 grams of fentanyl/heroin with an estimated street value of $198,000.
Investigators said they also found an undisclosed amount of cash and three firearms, including one that had been illegally modified.
Stacy Wright (left) and Shajuan Johnson (right) were arrested in connection with a large amount of drugs
The three people arrested and charged were:
Jalik Shykeil Tucker, 28, of Camden, South Carolina
Shajuan Johnson, 20, of Dalzell, South Carolina
Stacy Anita Latrelle Wright, 41, of Dalzell, South Carolina
A photo of Tucker was not immediately available.
"Investigations can go on for weeks, months, and even years depending on the evidence we are able to attain," Dennis said of the bust. "Before the arrests, these suspects had no idea we were on their trail."
He called the investigation a joint multi-jurisdictional operation and thanked investigators for the ongoing work.
"These men and women put in long hours, often in dangerous settings, to stop evildoers from spreading their poison in our county," Dennis said.
"Our people don’t want recognition, but the public needs to know the work of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office never sleeps," he said.
Tucker is being held at the Sumter County Detention Center.
Both Johnson and Write were released on bond shortly after their arrests, officials said.
Tree tops and branches lay strewn across Sumter County in the fall of 1989, littering the landscape like broken matchsticks after one of the most powerful hurricanes in state history swept far inland from ...
Tree tops and branches lay strewn across Sumter County in the fall of 1989, littering the landscape like broken matchsticks after one of the most powerful hurricanes in state history swept far inland from the coast.
Mooney Player, a legendary ex-high school football coach, remembers it well. Hurricane Hugo leveled much of the forested land his family had owned for six generations, costing him money from lost timber sales and causing him to wonder what he would do with the land in the future.
Player eventually settled on an idea that he never regretted. With the help of an agricultural expert, he converted the battered land into a private quail preserve, where he could hunt the coveted game birds with his friends.
Now, more than 30 years later, the 91-year-old Player has sold the 774 acres for the public to hunt on. The $1.5 million sale to Quail Forever has been finalized, and preparations are underway for quail experts to manage the property, as Player has done.
On Wednesday, officials with Quail Forever and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources planned to formally recognize the land transfer, with a dedication event on the property in the Dalzell community near the Sumter-Lee county line east of Columbia.
The property, to be called the Bobwhite Hills Wildlife Area, is the first Quail Forever has acquired in the eastern United States. Public hunting is expected to start in the 2023-24 season. General public access also will be allowed, according to plans. The land is adjacent to a 2,000-acre public wildlife management area
Raleigh West, director of the S.C. Conservation Bank, said the sale by Player to Quail Forever will protect property so that it can continue to be managed for the popular but dwindling game bird. The Conservation Bank, a state agency, provided about $850,000 toward the purchase by Quail Forever.
”The bobwhite quail is an iconic game bird that even as populations declined, continued to bring together generations of sportsmen and women,” West said. “The acquisition of Bobwhite Hills represents not only an opportunity to grow the native quail populations, but also it sets a backdrop for continuing our state’s rich sporting traditions.”
The bobwhite quail, so named for its characteristic “Bob White” call, is found in many places, including the upper Midwest and the Southeast. Noticeable for white and dark stripes on its head, the brownish-gray bird can stand nearly 11 inches tall and weigh 6.3 ounces.
The birds have been hunted for decades. They provide not only a great sporting challenge, but a tasty meal for those who bag them.
Quail thrive in grasslands and fields between cleared farmland and deep woods, but much of their habitat has been lost through the years to suburban sprawl and more intensive farming practices. Predators, such as fire ants and hawks, also threaten quail populations.
In South Carolina, bobwhite quail populations have dropped substantially since 1979, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The decline may have started sooner than that. Federal statistics show a 60% decline in quail population in the Southeast from the mid 1960s to the mid-1990s. Populations have rebounded slightly in recent years.
According to plans, the DNR will help manage the Player property with Quail Forever. That will involve keeping the proper habitat for quail so that the birds on Player’s former land will continue to sustain themselves. Wildlife managers also will limit the quail harvest to about 15% of the population at Bobwhite Hills, according to the DNR.
The key is preventing forested floors from becoming overgrown, and making sure open fields are maintained — both habitats that quail like. .
Player, one of the winningest coaches in state high school football history, said he sold the land because it was becoming harder to maintain and he had no family members available to take oversight of the property.
“There was not a sixth generation person to take over,’’ Player said. “There was nobody to pass it on to.’’
Player said, however, that West was helpful in putting the deal together, a move that allows for public access. Player said the preserve at one time “probably had the best natural quail’’ around.
State wildlife officials don’t dispute that.
“The beauty of this property is it is not going to require a lot work to get it going,’’ said Michael Hook, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ small game program chief. “This one is already there. You sort of jump in and go.’’
Player’s efforts to maintain a bobwhite quail preserve should come as no surprise to those who know Player as a football coach.
An intense and colorful character who once told a team manager to call the Air Force to complain about jets flying over his team’s practice field, Player won five state championships from 1957-1972. He coached at Newberry, Saluda and Lower Richland high schools. He won more than 150 games . He is a member of the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame.
During his tenure, he was known for innovative offenses, crisp practices, inspirational speeches and the slogan “Can’t Beat the Creek,” a reference to Lower Richland. While at Lower Richland, he lobbied to change the school’s mascot from a hornet to a diamond, thus today’s nickname “Diamond Hornets,’’ according to a 2010 story by The State’s Ron Morris.
Player, who grew up in Barnwell County, left Lower Richland in 1972, eventually seeking the vacant University of South Carolina football coaching job in late 1974. Bumper stickers around town called for USC to hire Player. But the university picked Texas Tech coach Jim Carlen, and Player never coached again.
Player said he began to hunt more often after leaving football — but only then.
““It was always football first, and I hunted a little bit after football season and after school in the afternoons,’’ he said.
Now, the public will benefit from his post-football hunting passion — and having the opportunity to maintain the land for quail will help in the fight to sustain populations of the bird, according to the DNR and Pheasants Forever, the parent organization for Quail Forever.
“For several years, coach Player searched for an entity to maintain and improve upon the conservation work he has completed, while perhaps expanding opportunities for future South Carolinians to experience a wild quail hunt,’’ the DNR and Quail Forever said in a statement, noting that the Quail organization was glad to help.
This story was originally published November 2, 2022, 7:30 AM.