No one has really been able to determined why a crescent, an iconic Muslim symbol, is on the South Carolina state flag. However, it is well known that several Muslims lived in Sumter, South Carolina. Referred to as the Turks of Sumter County, several census documents, land deeds, The Moor Sundry Act of 1790, and official released state legislative committee reports provide evidence of this. General Thomas Sumter and other heroes of the Continental Army were rewarded land just after the American Revolutionary War. General Sumter was known to be a quite man who lived alone with his servants and employees. One of his employees, Yusef Ibn Ali, who later came to be known as Joseph Benenhaley, was listed as a soldier of the Continental Army and came to live on Sumter’s land as a wheelwright. He was reported to have learned the craft before coming to America. In 1815, Joseph Benenhaley was deeded 33 acres by Thomas Sumter. Joseph Benenhaley and his family were recorded in the South Carolina census since 1800. In the 1920’s about 300 Benenhaley individuals were recorded to be living in Sumter County, South Carolina.
In 1790, the South Carolina state legislature passed the Moor Sundry Act of 1790. In this Act, the Free Moors, Francis, Daniel, Hammond and Samuel petitioned on behalf of themselves and their wives Fatima, Flora, Sarah and Clarinda to be recognized by the state as, “free people of color.” During the colonial, and until the civil rights movement, a person’s race would dictate who one could or could not marry, if he could vote, the laws that were used to indict him in courts of law, and his general overall status in society. Therefore, if one was not white, but also was not black or Native American, it was not clear if this person would have the same rights as a white man. While petitioning the courts, these Turks explained how they came to live in South Carolina. They explained that they were defending their country when they were captured by an African king. While there, a Captain Clark promised to take them to England where they could be redeemed by the Moroccan ambassador. However, instead, he took them to South Carolina and sold them as slaves. After a few years, they purchased their freedom. They reasoned that the court should award their request to be considered “free people of color” because the United States had just entered an alliance with the Prince of Morocco. They claimed to be subjects of the Prince of Morocco. Some people believe that it is possible that these Turks may have been retired pirates as well.
After the Moor Sundry Act was passed, several other people also requested to be considered free people of color. In addition, in 1830, descendants of David Scott, a free person of color went on to ask to be exempt from the tax placed on Free Blacks, in view of his service in the military in the American Revolutionary War. The committee report was titled: “Committee of Ways & Means: Report on the Petition of David Scott & Sundry Citizens of Sumpter Dist asking that the Descendants of David Scott may be exempted from paying the tax on Free Persons of Color.” In 1950, the Turks of South Carolina petitioned the Federal District Court to allow them to go to school with the white students at Hillcrest High School after graduating from Dalzell grade school. The Sumter School District contested the case, saying that these people had Negro blood, but they were able to prove that they did not have Negro blood, and were allowed to attend any white school in the state.
Tody, people with the following surnames consider themselves to be descended from the Turks of Sumter Co: Benenhaley, Buckner, Deas, Hood, Jolly, Oxidine, Pitts, Ray, and Scott. Although these people did not all have Arabic sounding last names, many European pirates converted to Islam and considered themselves to be subjects of the Ottoman or Moroccan Empires. In addition, many others may have adopted European names due to the level of discrimination that existed over time. In addition, by 1900, the Long Branch Baptist Church was established, and the citizens mostly became Christian.
You can read a whole timeline of events related to the Turks of South Carolina by reading, Sumter’s Turks by S. Pony Hill. This document can be found on http://sciway3.net/clark/freemoors/SumtersTurksb.htm
- What symbols appear on the South Carolina State Flag?
- Name three noted Turks who lived in South Carolina.
- How did Turks of South Carolina argue for their rights and freedom over time?
- Why were these people taken as slaves if they were not Black and did not have any “Negro blood”?
- Why was it important to define your race during this era in history?
- Why might have some of these Turks had European sounding names?