The Archives received an e-mail back in June from Melanie Barr, the Secretary of the Pleasant Street Historic Society in Gainesville, Florida. Attached was the newsletter for the organization containing an article on the Smith-Griffin House in Gainesville. The society is raising money to restore the house to be used as a museum. The Smith-Griffin House stands in a historic African American neighborhood in the heart of Gainesville known as the Pleasant Street Historic District.
Florida was claimed by the Spanish and British during the American colonial period. It was acquired by the United States in 1821. Once it became American territory, settlers from other states sought land there. We don’t think of it today, but Florida was as much a frontier area as the American West was in the 19th century. It was a vast, unsettled area. The Spanish had established a few towns such as St. Augustine and Pensacola. The Seminole Indians inhabited their ancient tribal lands throughout the state, but most of the state remained an uninhabited, untamed wilderness.
In the 1830s, with all of the frontier territories opening up, South Carolinians began an exodus to western states like Mississippi and Alabama and beyond. Many prominent families from Camden sought new land in those territories and in northern Florida, as well. As in many migrations, people tended to settle near others they knew. The Gainesville area attracted numerous Camdenites – several members of the Brevard family, as well as the Haile, Chesnut, Whitaker, Matheson, and McCaa families. These planters took their African American slaves from South Carolina with them. So, in a great way, Gainesville, Florida’s history was influenced by Camden, South Carolina’s people – both white and black.
McCrea Brevard and Edward C. Brevard migrated from Camden to the Gainesville area in 1853 or 1854. They jointly owned a plantation there. After emancipation, a black man alternately called Richard Brevard and Richard McCrae bought land from the Nehemiah Brush estate in what is now the Pleasant Street District. Richard may have been the same person as the slave listed as Carpenter Dick in McCrae Brevard’s 1861 will. This Richard was a carpenter and he built a house on his land – the same house we now know as the Smith-Griffin House. Like Richard, most of the freed African Americans who settled in the Pleasant Street District had skilled trades such as bakers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, draftsmen, and barbers. They built a community of homes, churches, businesses, and schools. Pleasant Street District is the oldest predominantly African American residential district in Gainesville. It is the first African American residential district in Florida to be designated as a historic district. Richard’s great, great granddaughter said the family was always proud that he came from Camden, South Carolina.
The development of this neighborhood in Gainesville is very similar to the pattern of settlement of Camden’s Campbell Street Corridor. Both were populated by skilled African Americans from the 1870s on into the 20th century. The architecture in both represents late 19th century and early 20th century styles. Both communities are acknowledged as significant and unique districts in their cities. The Pleasant Street District organized the Pleasant Street Historic Society, received their 501(c)3 non-profit status in the 1980s, and placed great focus on the history and physical appearance of their community.
Here in Camden, the African American History Committee has been operating under the auspices of the Camden Archives and Museum. This committee is conducting research on the Campbell Street Corridor and its place in the history of Camden. The Archives and Museum developed an exhibit on the corridor which ran from February 10 through July 29, 2016. The exhibit video which was produced by the Archives and Museum staff is available for purchase at the Archives’ front desk for $5.00. At present we are working on a Campbell Street Corridor brochure which will be a companion piece to the new Camden tour brochure recently developed by the city of Camden. The Camden tour brochure is available at the Archives, the Kershaw county Chamber of Commerce, and the City Hall Utility Counter. The Campbell Street Corridor brochure should be released in February, which is Black History Month.
These historic African American neighborhoods must be remembered and documented if we are to fully understand the history and development of our cities.
(Katherine H. Richardson, director of the Camden Archives and Museum, is a contributing columnist to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)