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Tracing the Mysterious “Turks” of South Carolina

Sumter County in South Carolina is the home of a family enclave that has baffled outsiders since the Revolutionary War. The several hundred people of the community claim Turkish Ottoman roots, as descendants of Joseph Benenhaley, who served under General Sumter and was granted land after the war. For over two centuries, they've kept to themselves, with six family names dominating the group.   

For many years the Turkish people’s origin story was usually considered no more than myth, a fable concocted to sustain an out-group through unpleasant realities of hard history. In 1973, a historian put it this way: “A stranger visiting Sumter County today may come across a baffling breed called ‘Turks’…. So meager are the facts relating to them that the wildest conjectures, based on what must surely be flight of fancy and geographical ignorance, have been advanced to support their origin.” Still, members of the group persisted in claiming Turkish descent, and now we—a political scientist and a Turkish descendant—have confirmed the group’s traditional narrative and beleaguered history, through original research and oral interviews.

The Turkish people didn’t fit cleanly into the broader black-versus-white paradigm in that part of South Carolina. They adhered to an ancestral understanding that they were “white people,” but outside the Dalzell area, where most lived, they were shunned. Like their black neighbors, they were subject to insults, intimidation and systemic oppression. The Turkish people had to go to federal court to be able to send their children to “white schools” during the 1950s, and only in the past few decades have they begun to enjoy things like getting good jobs in mainstream society, accessing health care at local hospitals, shopping at community businesses, or participating in Little League baseball, without being turned away or treated as second-class citizens.

Glen Browder and Terri Ann Ognibene took an interest in the enclave and did painstaking research into historical archives and DNA to tell the story the community's origins. Read a synopsis of their book South Carolina’s Turkish People: A History and Ethnology at Smithsonian.


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