[image-1] The Charleston Friends of the Library host a discussion at CofC’s Addlestone Library about the book South Carolina’s Turkish People this Thurs. Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. Authors Terri Ann Ognibene and Glen Browder will be there to answer questions about their work, which explores the mysterious origins of the so-called Turkish people of Sumter County. But first comes the question: Who are the Turkish people?
The story of South Carolina is, like the story of all of this country, one of immigration and assimilation. Anyone who attended eighth grade in the state and took S.C. History knows one version of this story; South Carolina was founded as a British colony. The Brits brought over enslaved Africans and fought wars with indigenous people. Later on, Germans and French Huguenots made new contributions to the culture of South Carolinians, from food to language.
In this story, the Turkish people of Sumter County represent a complete enigma. Sumter County is a relatively poor, rural county and there aren’t a whole lot of Turkish residents, comprising only at most 400 people around the town of Dalzell. A slight majority have born the same last name: Benenhaley.
In their research on, and discussions with, Turkish people in Dalzell, Ognibene and Browder found a people acutely aware of their identity. Older members of the community can remember a time of persecution and suspicion. With a darker skin color during segregation, they were placed into a special category. There were Turkish schools, Turkish school buses, and Turkish cinemas in this period.
[image-2] In a New York Times piece about the book, Browder says, “We’ve learned the true history of the Turkish people, solving a 200-year mystery. The critics that dismiss the claims about their narrative as pure racism, they were pretty much off target.”
There are some in the community who believe these people are descended from the Cheraw Indian tribe, which has led to debate and division among the community. Many Turkish people have clung to the belief that the originator of them all was Joseph Benenhaley, a citizen of the Ottoman Empire who received a large plot of land in modern-day Sumter after the Revolutionary War.
According to Browder and Ognibene there is a lot of weight to this hypothesis; the researchers found references to “Joseph’s Land” in 19th century documents, and historians have theorized that Joseph Benenhaley could be an anglicization of the name Yusuf ibn Ali. Although the Turkish people are largely evangelical and today have largely been assimilated into mainstream society, they still hold on to their mythical founder.
The event in Addlestone is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Copies of South Carolina’s Turkish People will be available for sale.