For two centuries, the "Turkish people" of Sumter County were isolated from the rest of the population, and their ethnic origins were unclear. Now, Sumter native Glen Browder and Terri Ognibene, a …
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For two centuries, the "Turkish people" of Sumter County were isolated from the rest of the population, and their ethnic origins were unclear. Now, Sumter native Glen Browder and Terri Ognibene, a descendant of the Turkish people, have collaborated in researching the origins and history of the people who lived mainly in the Dalzell and Stateburg area.
On Saturday, April 21, they will give a presentation at the Sumter County Museum on their research and resulting book titled "South Carolina's Turkish People, A History and Ethnology." The 1 p.m. event is free and open to the public.
Browder said last week that the co-authors' book revealed a "positive, affirmative story of the 'Turkish people.'"
He explained that the book is in two sections: Browder's extensive research asked the question "Who are the Turkish people?" with his narrative written in the academic third person, and Ognibene's chapters state "We are the Turkish people."
Both authors noted that the ethnicity of the Turkish people was a mystery to both scholars and the Turkish people themselves. He said many scholars labeled them "tri-racial isolates," that is, a community of "disassociated (American) Indians, poor white settlers and runaway or freed slaves."
The dark-skinned Turkish people faced discrimination, "isolation and oppression," despite their connections to Gen. Thomas Sumter, for whom their patriarch, Joseph Benenhaley, served as a scout in the American Revolution. Tradition in the community held that Sumter rewarded Benenhaley by giving him land on his plantation.
Ognibene said the Turkish people not only lived in a community separate from the rest of the population, but theyalso attended separate schools and churches and had to sit in segregated areas in theaters and buses.
Browder said he did "a heck of a lot of research in the Sumter area, trying to give voice to the Turkish people."
"The more research we did, the more we felt we had an enduring story," Browder said.
He said his study of primary sources - "historical reports, public records and private papers" and his "reconstruction of Turkish lineage of the 1800s through genealogical analysis and genetic testing," combined with Ognibene's insightful interviews with relatives who had been in the area for many years, gave an accurate and compelling picture of the Turkish people's heritage.
In an article in the 2017 fall-winter issue of Carologue, a journal published by the South Carolina Historical Society, Browder and Ognibene explain their research process to discover the true history of the Turkish people. The time from beginning the research to publication of their book was about 10 years; Browder said much of the research centers on Joseph Benenhaley, called "a Caucasian of Arab descent." Browder said many critics believed Benenhaley and the oral history to be merely a myth. Some referred to them as "so-called Turks."
Ognibene interviewed several elderly Turkish people in the area for her doctoral dissertation, and her research comprises the second part of the book. She found the four whom she interviewed "still reluctant to speak openly about their Turkish history. (Although) they claimed lineage from Joseph Benenhaley and described themselves as white people of Turkish descent. mentioned Gen. Thomas Sumter as part of their story."
They recounted memories of hurtful discrimination; one even told of the fear caused by the Ku Klux Klan having burned a cross in her family's yard.
Through their research, "consultation with experts and then DNA (genetic) testing," as well as the interviews, Browder and Ognibene confirmed the oral history and beliefs of the Turkish people of South Carolina. Their findings show that the Turkish people of South Carolina are indeed descendants of Joseph Benenhaley, known as "the original Ottoman Turk."
In their April 21 presentation, Browder and Ognibene will elaborate on the results of their research and participate in a question-and-answer period. Copies of their book, which will be released just a few days earlier, will be available for purchase and signing.
Terri Ann Ognibene earned a Ph.D. in language and literacy education from Georgia State University. She teaches Spanish at Pope High School in Marietta, Georgia, where she was named Teacher of the Year for 2015-16.
Glen Browder holds a Ph.D. in political science from Emory University and is a professor emeritus of political science and American democracy at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. A former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Browder also served Alabama in its House of Representatives and as secretary of state. He has published three books, "The Future of American Democracy: A Former Congressman's Unconventional Analysis," University Press of America, 2002; "The South's New Racial Politics: Inside the Race Game of Southern History," NewSouth Books, 2009; and "Stealth Reconstruction: An Untold Story of Racial Politics in Recent Southern History (with Artemisia Stanberry)," NewSouth Books, 2010.
The public is invited to the 1 p.m. Saturday, April 21, free presentation by Glen Browder and Terri Ognibene on their book titled "South Carolina's Turkish People, A History and Ethnology." The event will be held in the Sumter County Museum's Heritage Education Center, 122 N. Washington St. For more information about the event, call the museum at (803) 775-0908.
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