(This week’s column picks up from last month’s piece on “The Revolutionary War on Campbell Street,” which looked at the street’s early history along with the city’s public squares, Jackson School, and several churches. This second installment begins with a visit to Cedars Cemetery.)
The early beginnings of the burial ground for the colored people of Camden are lost in the mists of time. Tradition holds the owner of the land upon which it stands allowed a burial on the tract at some unknown date. The ground continued to be used for interments of African-Americans. The cemetery was established by the 1840s, as documented by the earliest dated headstone in the burying ground. We are unsure at this time where people of color were buried earlier in Camden’s history.
In September 1799, Joseph Kershaw deeded a large town lot, number 674, to the Town Council of Camden to be used as a “Burial Ground, grave yard, or place in interment for all slaves, negroes, Indians, Mulattos and Mustizos …” It appears the lot wasn’t so used because by 1814, Thomas Lang purchased the lot from the town and built his large mansion on it at the crest of the hill on the corner of DeKalb and Campbell Streets.
The earliest document located to date which references the cemetery is an 1868 deed of mortgage from Cyrus McGyrth to the Commissioner of Equity for Kershaw County for lots 419 to 438, the city block containing the oldest portion of the colored people’s cemetery. The Commissioner of Equity was to hold title to the property until the mortgage of $225 was paid to the court.
McGyrth, or McGirt as the family became known, did retain the property. Apparently they occupied the northern part of the city block (lots 419 through part of 422 and 433 through 438). Burials occurred on the southern part of the city block (lots 423 through 432 and part of 422). Through the years, some confusion existed over the ownership of the lots on this block, for in 1889, the Town of Camden had granted lots 428 to 437 to the Colored People’s Cemetery Association. In 1962, the confusion over ownership was cleared up by the McGirt family signing a quit-claim deed for the lots used as a cemetery to the Colored People’s Cemetery Association.
In 1962, the cemetery became known as Cedars Cemetery. At that time, burials had occurred on the property for more than 120 years. The land upon which it stands is, at times, not well suited for a burial ground due to flooding caused by the “Big Ditch,” which runs slightly north of the cemetery. This drainage ditch, which was dug to drain the business district of downtown Camden, has been known to wash away gravesites in the cemetery.
Cedars Cemetery is a hallowed place. We may never know the exact number of Camden citizens who rest in the ground there, for many graves are unmarked. Others have stones, ranging from handmade to artist-engraved. The lives of those who rest there tell the story of the people of color through the ages in Camden.
Collins Funeral Home
Elizabeth Collins purchased the house and property at 714 DeKalb St., on the corner of DeKalb and Campbell streets, in 1898. Collins Funeral Home began its business in 1914. Elizabeth’s son, Amon Collins, operated it out of a small building on the grounds of the present funeral home. He later moved the business to his residences at 1014 and 1008 Campbell St. In the 1950s, the business moved from the Collins family home to its present site.
The present location of the business is one of the oldest homes in Camden, having been built by Phineas Thornton in 1823. The old horse drawn hearse which stands in the front yard of the funeral home dates from the first days of the business in 1914 and was used until 1923 when a gas powered hearse was acquired. It is a symbol of the service this family has provided for the African-American community for more than 100 years.
The Bonds Conway House
This little house, one of the oldest in Camden, was likely constructed about 1812 by Bonds Conway. It once stood at 411 York St. on property owned by the Conway family from 1812 to 1890. Bonds Conway is thought to be the first slave to have bought his freedom in Camden. This occurred in 1793 when Bonds paid 87 pounds for his freedom. Many descendants of Bonds Conway and his wife, Dorcas, lived on Campbell Street. The Bonds Conway House was in great disrepair when the Kershaw County Historical Society acquired it in 1977 and began a several years restoration after moving it to its present location at 811 Fair St. It now serves as the office for the Historical Society. The Bonds Conway House is a wonderful example of a vernacular small dwelling constructed in Camden during the early 19th century.
Camden 2nd Presbyterian Church and School
Camden Second Presbyterian Church grew out of a Sunday School established in 1890 by two men affiliated with Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C. This Sunday School was held in the home of Robert Boykin which stood across Market Street from the present church building. The organizers were Rev. Veal, a Sunday School missionary from Chester, and Rev. Watkins from Sumter. One of the first Sunday School teachers was Miss Florence Price.
The Sunday School thrived. It was held in the morning and had classes for adults and children. As time progressed, worship services were held on Sunday afternoons at the Boykin home. The classes and worship attendance soon outgrew the room in the house and classes and services were moved to the Boykin yard. About 1893, members of the Sunday School petitioned Fairfield Presbytery for permission to organize a church. Fairfield Presbytery oversaw the black churches in this part of the state at that time. Among the charter members of the church were three Campbell Street residents, Tilman Daniel James, Mrs. Elizabeth McClain, and Mrs. Angie Thompson, along with Broad Street resident, Miss Florence Price. The new church called Rev. Samuel Calvin Thompson to be their minister. Rev. Thompson oversaw and guided the church through its first formative years and passed away in 1900, just as the new church building was constructed.
A Johnson C. Smith University graduate, Rev. William Randolph Muldrow, became the church’s minister in 1903. Rev. Muldrow’s ministry oversaw the organization of a private, non-denominational day school at the church. The school was funded by the Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Rev. and Mrs. Muldrow taught in the three room wooden school building which stood behind the church.
In 2016, Camden Second Presbyterian Church celebrates 126 years of its stated mission: “Guided by the Holy Spirit, it is our vision to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with people in the Camden area. By the grace of God, our church is a place where hurting and struggling people can find love, acceptance, guidance, forgiveness, hope and restoration.”
Public Library for Coloreds
Until 1947, the only library for African-Americans in Camden was the private library at Mather Academy. Mather’s Russel Memorial Library had 2,500 books. Former students remember checking out books so non-students could read them. In 1947, the Kershaw County Library Commission began plans for opening a “Negro unit” of the library. This unit for library services was set up in a section of the Jackson School teen canteen. The repository opened on May 1, 1947, with 631 books and 700 library card holders. The need was obviously great. Planning soon began for a new building to house the Negro library.
The new Negro Library was an interracial project. A large fund raising committee was formed. The city donated property on Jackson Square as well as $5,000. The county delegation pledged $5,000, as well. Camden’s Negro community’s pledge to match the city funding was to be in cash, labor, or building materials. John Roy Harper, the shop teacher at Mather Academy, designed the building and supervised the construction.
The groundbreaking for the new library was held in June of 1950. At that time, Kershaw County was the only county in the state with library services for the colored population.
Eugene H. Dibble and Brothers Grocery
Eugene H. Dibble was the son of Andrew H. and Ellie Naudin Dibble. Through his mother, he was a descendant of Bonds Conway. Apparently he was a student in Miss Babcock’s Negro school after the Civil War, for she took him to Massachusetts with her when she returned to her home there in 1867. There she enrolled him in the State Normal School at Bridgewater, later known as Bridgewater State College. Andrew received a fine education there and eventually returned to his family in Camden. All of his seven children attended Mather Academy.
Eugene served in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1876 until 1878. He and his brothers became important African-American businessmen in Camden. The family owned two highly successful general merchandise and grocery stores on Broad Street. Eugene owned the store on the corner of DeKalb and Broad Streets for more than 50 years.
He was among a thriving black business community in Camden. By the mid-1920s, there were 26 black grocers, three restaurants operated by blacks, and five filling and service stations in town. Numerous barber shops, bakeries, butchers, seafood markets, and blacksmith shops were owned by black proprietors.
Eugene and his family also acquired much real estate in Camden and can be credited with the development of the Campbell Street corridor, selling 24 lots on that street as well as ten lots on Gordon Street between the years 1900 and 1940.