Recollections of Society Hill from William Faulkner

Wilhelmenia P. Johnson with the William J. Faulkner display of items at the Cultural Realism Center's Museum on Coker Street in Darlington.

Wilhelmenia P. Johnson with the William J. Faulkner display of items at the Cultural Realism Center’s Museum on Coker Street in Darlington.

By Jana E. Pye, Editor,

The News and Press was fortunate to receive a letter from Sarah B. Moore (nee Sarah Martha Burn of Society Hill) who now resides in Columbia; she enclosed two articles found among the papers of her Aunt Florence H. Burn by William J. Faulkner.
“Everyone that has read them think they are a remarkable description of the times,” wrote Mrs. Moore. “I hope you will consider printing them in the News and Press.”

William J. Faulkner (1891 – 1987) was born in Society Hill and noted author of the book of folk tales entitled “The Days When the Animals Talked”, tales he remembered being told as a child by Simon Brown, a former slave from Virginia that was hired by Faulkner’s widowed mother to help care for the family farm.

William Faulkner "The Days when the Animals Talked"

William Faulkner “The Days when the Animals Talked”

The Cultural Realism Center museum on Coker Street in Darlington has an original copy of his book, the record album of the recorded tales, and a personal scrapbook donated by Faulkner to the CRC during the Bicentennial celebration in 1976.
Faulkner graduated from Springfield College, Springfield, MA and received his doctorate in theology from the Chicago Theological Seminary of the University of Chicago. For nineteen years, he served with distinction as University Minister and Dean of Men at Fisk University, in Nashville. Dr. Faulkner continued his career as folklorist with the hope helping “to dignify the black storyteller and contribute to truer racial understanding.” He died in 1987 at the age of 95.

“He put Darlington County on the map,” said Wilhelmina P. Johnson, Director of the CRC. “He was renown all over the world for his contributions, and made us all very proud. He helped tremendously when we were preparing the African Americans contributions to our nation’s Bicentennial. His family has continued to remember Darlington County. A Historical Marker is placed in Society Hill dedicated to Faulkner on one side, and Simon Brown on the other.”

The following is an exact copy of the papers provided by Sarah B. Moore:

William J. Faulkner’s Recollections of Society Hill, South Carolina during his Childhood and Youth 1891 – 1911
A Documentary for the Ethical Participation in Bicentennial Celebration, August 10, 1976

Located on hilly ground of red clay, overlooking Pee Dee River Valley, where roads from three counties merged, – Darlington, Marlboro and Chesterfield. The population was then about 400, more or less evenly divided between black and white. The Welch Neck Baptist Church, with its tall steeple, dominated the town.

Friendly community, where citizens lived and worked together, within the framework of the color caste system then prevailing. Families were known by all, and were treated individually, and respected, according to their position and standing. It was said proudly that no lynching ever occurred in Darlington County. A man’s word was trusted, and “Due Bills” were honored by the merchants.

There were three white: Welch Neck Baptist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal. Three black: Bethesda (oldest and largest) Baptist, Union Baptist, and Northern Methodist. Unusually religious community, where people from rural districts worshipped with towns people on Sundays. Strict Sabbath observance. No recreational games or loud noises allowed. All respectable families expected to attend church, and/or Sunday School. Once each year the black community held Revival Services, and later, Baptismal rituals. The Welch Neck Church baptized its candidates in a separate building, called “The Pool.”

The Welsh Neck Church Cemetery always intrigued me, historically with its ancient marble slabs and headstones; and aesthetically, with its gravel walks, bordered with lilacs, sweet shrubs, japonicas (camellias), and red honeysuckles. Lordly cedars and magnolia trees gave the place an eerie appearance late evenings. Noah Bacote was the dedicated and beloved sexton and grounds keeper. He is the only person of color buried there.

I remember the Reverend Mr. Dowell, Pastor of Welch Neck Church, as being loved by all. He and my father exchanged religious books, and perhaps he borrowed books from the Town Library for him. (Blacks were not allowed in the library). Both men were very devout. Reverend Calahan of Union Church was also beloved. He baptized me.

Two Public Schools, – one for whites and one for blacks. St. David’s Academy, with good facilities and faculty. Prof. Lewis was the Principal, and he was highly respected. The public school for blacks was miserably housed, crowded and lacking in light and other facilities, but, the teachers were fairly well trained and fully dedicated. Prof. A. A. L. Wilson, of Georgetown was a graduate of Benedict College, also a clergyman and gifted musician. Mrs. William Purcell and Mrs. Euphemia Purcell taught pupils privately, in their homes, through the fifth grade.

Many of the men and boys hunted, fished, swam, and played baseball on Saturday afternoons and Fourth of July. The boys played marbles, and threw spinning tops, and Mumbly Peg. On Saturdays, tap dancing and wrestling contests often occurred in front of our store. The town boasted of three piece combo, of black musicians, who serenaded Saturday nights in front of the Main Street stores, – for tips. Jim Hubbard played the mouth organ and Jews Harp, Harry Bacote, the mandolin and Sonny Hubbard the guitar (when he wasn’t barbaring). They harmonized old songs remarkably well. Occasionally some one brought out an old bass fiddle. White friends from “up in Chesterfield” sometimes played the fiddle and sang folk songs, on Saturdays. Otherwise, Victorian customs prevailed, in the leisure time.

For adults and children in the summer, church dinners, picnics, or barbeques were popular. In winter, the men and older boys would drink soda pop and eat “pinders”, and tell tall tales, as they gathered around the potbellied wood stove. More sedate folks would visit among neighbors and “pass the time of day,” or gossip.

Once a year, in November, the wealthier families, black and white, would take the children to Charleston for “Gala Week.” Early in the nineties, my mother took me, and we rode in a first class coach on the train, and in a non-segregated horse drawn street car. Shortly after that came the hated Jim Crow laws.

Christmas was always special! If the boys did not get a package of little (Chinese) fire crackers and a few “cannon crackers” and Roman candles in their stockings, their day was spoiled. At night men and boys fired sky rockets and Roman candles. The churches gave concerts, – some times with pantomimes done in the light of vari-colored “Greek Fire” burning powder. Santa Claus, in red suit, would tear down “brick” chimneys with candy and nuts in them and toss out to the children. The same with presents on the holly tree. The climax came (always at Union Church) when all, assembled on the church porch, were treated to such a sight as I’ve seen anywhere else. Namely, a “Fire Ball Toss.” Kerosene-soaked cotton balls were rolled quickly in and out of small fires, 50 feet apart, and hurled blazingly down the sandy street to waiting men, who would, in turn, catch them and quickly toss them back. The men used no gloves. After all of the excitement, a week or two of eating cakes, pies and other goodies, a visiting neighbors, etc. made Christmas for me a thrilling experience. For amusement, also, I’ll not forget the traveling organ grinder and his dancing monkey, nor the other organ grinder with his waltzing bear.

The Darlington Brick Yard employed more men than any other industry. “Cap’n” John Blackman managed it. The Atlantic Coastline Railroad (A. C. L.), with its wood burning locomotives, operated a Freight Depot and a crew of Section hands. Mr. Rose was the Agent. Lawrence Faulkner and J.S. Dickson sold cord wood and cross tires to the A.C.L. Railbroad. Carrigan’s Cotton Gin, which operated in season, (with its artesian well) employed several men. Mr. Henry Bass ran a corn-meal mill, at the Mill Pond, and another “Factory Mill,” which ground wheat flour, was located just off the Hartsville Road, about a half mile out of town beyond Dr. Tribbett’s home.

A.C. L. Railroad, flatbottom steam boats (to Turnage’s Toll Bridge) on Pee Dee River, horses, mules, and oxen, which drew carriages, buggies, wagons, and carts, – and walking- constituted our means of travel. All dirt roads maintained by chain gang prisoners, Poll Tax delinquents.

Land owners, small farmers, and merchants (all of the bigger ones were on Main Street) controlled the economy.
They either planted, or bought and sold cotton, corn, tobacco, peanuts and other agricultural products and live stock, or they ran general stores, which furnished groceries, dry goods, hard-ware and agricultural supplies for tenant farmers, or share croppers, as well as to the general public. This was a lucrative business. Some of the larger stores, which I recall, were Tommy Coker’s, on a hillside of the Cheraw Road, Lawrence Faulkner’s, (near Welsh Neck Church), where the Post Office was located. Tom Wilson’s (later J. S. Dicson’s); Sam Warner’s, L. E. Carrigan’s, John Sumner,s, Allen Coker’s (Department tore), and Gus Somparac’s store. I remember also Dr. Barrentine’s Drug Store, Ashton Gandy’s, and Captain Harden’s Magistrate’s Office. Other merchants I remember included several successful black business men: Tom Black, Dave Brock, Johnny Dickson, Zack Wines, Dembo Wadell and Mose Prince. Covered wagons with hand made clay and woven products from the North Carolina mountains. Gypsy horse traders and fortunetellers came through also.

Walter and Willie Purcell, born in Charleston, were carpenters, cabinetmakers and painters. Charlie Tolson, John Gilliam and Neil Williams were blacksmiths. Shoemaker: Randolph Ruffin. Barber: Henry Hubbard. Dress Makers: Mrs. Ellen Brock and sister, Mrs. Lou Purcell, also Mrs. Euphemia Purcell.

Society Hill was a small cultural center, in that the churches al had organs or pianos, and capable organists, black and white. Outside soloists came in occasionally and sang. Several families also owned musical instruments. The aristocratic white families kept in contact with their friends and relatives in Charleston, – especially the Episcopalians. Many of the members of the Union Baptist Church were born in Charleston, and brought their art, manners and skills to the community.
Lastly, but most importantly, in my life and fortunes, was an old man named Simon Brown, – an ex-slave. He was the first man I had met who could “Make the Animals Talk.” Of his folk tales and legends, the world is now learning, through my writings and recordings. It is a pleasure for me to present to the Society Hill Archives a copy of my latest album, “The Days when the Animals Talked,” by Simon Brown, of our little town.

By William J. Faulkner

Author: Jana Pye

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