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Camden’s African-American corridor

Posted: November 20, 2014 4:47 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2014 1:00 a.m.

In 2008, a group of graduate students from the University of South Carolina’s Public History Program produced a study entitled, “The Camden African-American Heritage Project.” It was the product of a student group assignment conducted in 2005-06. The students were assisted by many Camden residents in their search for the history of African-Americans in Camden from the Colonial period through the era of civil rights. Though able to spend only one semester researching and writing, the students pulled together an admirable overview of the lives of African-Americans here. In their final recommendations they suggested, among other things, that an African-American tour of Camden be produced.

In the spring of 2013, Camden City Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford asked us to form a small committee under the auspices of the Camden Archives and Museum to begin developing an African-American tour. She suggested I call Clifton Anderson and Dr. Ernestyne Adams to be committee members. Since meeting in June of that year, we have identified the projected tour area and the period of significance for the tour. The projected tour area centers around the entire length of Campbell Street, the oldest settled African-American neighborhood, with corridors branching out into the business and southern Camden residential districts. The period of significance for the tour is 1913 to 1940, chosen because we have historical resources which can definitively document those years. We have been in the research phase of the project for the past months. So, I thought I’d report our findings to you periodically as we develop our context history.            

The committee had very good broad questions as we began our research. Two of the leading questions were: 1) Why was the African-American residential community centered around Campbell Street? 2) What role did the Lang family, who owned much of that property at one time, have in establishing the Campbell Street neighborhood? We don’t have all of the answers yet -- but we have a very good beginning.

The Lang family in Camden was established by William Lang (1746-1815) who migrated here from Yorkshire, England. Through his marriage to Sally Wyly, daughter of Samuel Wyly, he inherited a vast amount of land in and near present-day Camden. Their son, William Wyly Lang, purchased Camden town lot 674 from the town of Camden in 1814 and built his large dwelling there. The tract of land associated with the house totaled 27 acres, constituting Camden lots 674 through 688. The large Georgian style house stood at the southwestern corner of DeKalb and Campbell streets on that high hill. He certainly had servants on his land in town, so there would have been slave quarters as well. After investigation of the Lang land records, I do not find that any of the property was deeded to ex-slaves by the family.

William W. Lang migrated to Alabama by 1838, when he received a land grant in Dallas County. In 1847, he sold his house and land in Camden to John Whitaker. By 1867, the property was in the hands of D. A. Amme, who owned a bakery on King Street in Charleston. In that year, Amme sold the house and 27 acres to Sarah Babcock for $2,000. Sarah Babcock was a northern teacher who had come south after the Civil War to start a school for children of former slaves. Her acquisition of the property eventually led to the founding of the Browning Home and Mather Academy in Camden, an African-American private school which flourished from 1883 until 1983.

So, we find that the Lang family did not directly influence the establishment of the Campbell Street corridor, but the land that they amassed there and their house became the site of one of the most prestigious African-American private schools in the south. Mather Academy became a nucleus for the African-American neighborhood which developed along the Campbell and Gordon streets corridor, but the answer to how the Campbell Street corridor developed lay elsewhere.

One of the earliest houses on Campbell Street was the home of Andrew Henry Dibble Sr. (1825-1873), an African-American tailor, and his wife, Ellie Naomi Naudin Dibble (1828-1920). Both were free blacks before Emancipation. They married in 1845. Andrew began to acquire property in the town of Camden before 1854, when he sold lots 1145 and 1146 on Church Street to Marceau Naudin Jr. In 1863, Andrew and Ellie acquired city lot 748, now 1216 Campbell St., where they built a one story gable front and wing Folk Victorian style house. The spacious house was home to the Dibbles for 60 years.

The Dibbles had an interesting tie to Mather Academy. When its founder, Sarah Babcock returned to her home in Massachusetts in 1867, Andrew and Ellie’s fifth child, Eugene Heriot, went with her. She enrolled him in the State Normal School at Bridgewater, which later became Bridgewater State College. The school, still in existence, provided young Eugene an excellent education at a level which would not have been available to him in the South for some years. After completing his education, Eugene returned to Camden. All of his seven children attended Mather Academy.

Eugene and his brothers became important businessmen in Camden. John Moreau Dibble started a general store in 1873. This store became a mainstay on Broad Street in the business district. Eugene also started a general merchandise store on the corner of Broad and DeKalb streets. Eugene, his brothers, and his mother operated these business establishments until at least 1920. They also acquired a vast amount of real estate in the town of Camden through the years.

In researching the property sold by the Dibble family in Camden after 1840, it becomes clear that the Dibbles had a profound impact on the development of the Campbell Street corridor between 1900 and 1940. They sold 24 lots on Campbell Street during that time period. They had an effect on nearby development, as well, owning and selling 11 lots on Gordon Street, 10 on DeKalb Street, seven on Rutledge Street, and 12 on Church Street, as well as 41 other parcels in town. In addition to those bought and sold, they also leased 10 commercial properties throughout the period. The Dibble family is remembered for its successful mercantile establishments; family members were also, in effect, real estate developers with a lasting impact on the development of the African-American business and residential community in Camden.

We’ll address some of the other broad questions asked by the committee in future articles, as the research for the African-American tour progresses.

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