African American experience in Edgefield subject of new book

  • Posted: Monday, April 28, 2014 12:01 a.m.
STAFF PHOTO BY DEDE BILES
The authors participating in a book signing in Edgefield on Sunday for “Our Ancestors, Our Stories,” from left, are Ellen LeVonne Butler, Vincent Sheppard, Ethel Dailey, Harris Bailey Jr. and Bernice Alexander Bennett.
STAFF PHOTO BY DEDE BILES The authors participating in a book signing in Edgefield on Sunday for “Our Ancestors, Our Stories,” from left, are Ellen LeVonne Butler, Vincent Sheppard, Ethel Dailey, Harris Bailey Jr. and Bernice Alexander Bennett.

EDGEFIELD — When Bernice Alexander Bennett went looking for her ancestors, the Maryland resident and genealogist ended up here. In records from the 1800s, she uncovered evidence that she was related to a man named Andrew Kemp and his parents, Patience and Sam.

Bennett also found something else during her search – a living descendant of the family who had owned her ancestors when they were enslaved.

The impact of the discoveries on Bennett was nearly overwhelming.

“I'm originally from New Orleans, so I have no other way to describe the experience than to think of Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “The water is coming down; you have nowhere to run to and you feel like you are totally out of control. It was very emotional, and I was shaking.”

Bennett was one of the five black authors of the new book, “Our Ancestors, Our Stories,” who spoke on Sunday in the Lynch Building Annex of the Tompkins Library during a signing event hosted by the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society.

The others were Harris Bailey Jr., Ellen LeVonne Butler, Ethel Dailey and Vincent Sheppard.

Like Bennett, Butler, Dailey and Sheppard wrote about the searches for their ancestors. Bailey's contribution was a chapter about the history of Edgefield and the surrounding area.

“We're trying to encourage the inclusion of the African American experience in American history, which is still lacking,” said Bailey, who lives in Greenwood and works for the Upper Savannah Council of Governments. “We want to bring to life the stories of people that you have never heard of.”

Bennett started the quest to discover her ancestors' roots in the Palmetto State 10 years ago.

“My father is from Ninety Six, and I knew nothing about his family,” she said. “I thought it was time to find out about my South Carolina connections.”

While seeking information, Bennett met Dr. Connie McNeill, who lives in Abbeville and is a former president of the South Carolina Genealogical Society and the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society.

“We bonded immediately,” McNeill said.

Bennett also became acquainted with Bailey and his wife, Sheryl Kemp Bailey, who turned out to be her cousin.

McNeill, who is white, encouraged Bennett and Sheryl Bailey to go to the Tompkins Library to look at records. McNeill was intrigued because her ancestors and Bennett and Bailey's ancestors shared the Kemp name and all had lived in the Edgefield District.

Some of the white Kemp family's members had died without wills in the 1800s, so the Tompkins Library had inventories of the property that they had owned. Listed in those inventories were their slaves, including Andrew Kemp and his parents.

The white Kemps who owned Bennett and Bailey's ancestors turned out to be McNeill's ancestors.

“I'm thrilled to death I got to meet these people and make this connection; as far as I'm concerned, they are my kin,” McNeill said. “I wasn't really too surprised because sooner or later, as you're going back and doing genealogical research in the South, you're going to find these kinds of relationships. You have to have an open mind.”

The ancestral connection with McNeill “means a lot to me,” Bennett said, and she is grateful for the information they have been able to share.

“We call ourselves 'The Kemp Girls,'” Bennett added.

Sheryl Kemp Bailey is also glad she got to meet McNeill and has a connection from the past with her.

“It is my opinion that the existing generation did not create that situation with slavery,” Bailey said. “I knew very little about my family, and what I've learned has helped me clarify things. I wanted to know about being a Kemp. It has given me a connection to somebody.”

According to Bailey, she and McNeill have become close because they “support and encourage each other” in their genealogical research efforts.

For more information about “Our Ancestors, Our Stories,” call the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society at 803-637-4010.

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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