Former Slave Honored at James Island's Pinckney Park

Feb 27, 2018

Pinckney Park on James Island
Credit Victoria Hansen / SC Public Radio

James Island's Pinckney Park, with its colorful playground, iconic oak tree  and tire swing, is less than a  year old.  But its history goes back 150 years.  That's when a former slave bought the property just outside of Charleston.   It's still  thick with palms and pines that back up to a tributary of Parrot Creek.  His  name was Simeon Pinckney. 

"Most of the stories  that my mother told of him was him straightening someone out for not doing the right thing," said Jerome Harris.  He is the great- great grandson of Simeon Pinckney. 

Harris's  mother lived in a small, brick home that remains on the property and he spent many summers there.  He says he inherited the land when his mother passed and later sold it to the town to preserve as a park on Fort Johnson Road.  The first phase of the playground opened last summer.  Family, friends and local historians returned  this month to unveil a roadside plaque in the former slave's name, as part of the state's historical marker program.

Simeon Pinckney's great- great grandson Jerome Harris
Credit Victoria Hansen / SC Public Radio

"Putting up the marker and getting that approved just begins to scratch the surface of what I think is a very deep well of stories and history," said Harris.  There's so much more he wants to know as he reveals what has been passed down to him.

Born a slave in Manning, Simeon Pinckney was 16 years-old when he joined the Union Army during the Civil War, enlisting in the 3rd South Carolina Infantry and the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry.  His two years of service paid roughly $11.00.  He pocketed the money and saved.  Nine years after the war, during reconstruction, he shelled out  $350.00 for the James Island land.  He built a home, farmed and raised a family.  He invited other African American families to do the same.

"Other non family members also resided on the land," said Harris.  "They were farming almost in a cooperative kind of fashion.

Sherman Pyatt is an author and commissioner with the Gullah Geechee  Cultural Heritage Corridor.  The group tries to preserve the history of Central and West African descendants who were enslaved along the coast,  from Florida to North Carolina.  He says it wasn't unusual for freed slaves to buy land after the war.  Many were brick masons and craftsmen who able to save small amounts of money. 

"There was a large  amount of freedmen, as they were called," said Pyatt.  "They were saving money and purchasing land because they knew they were restricted geographically as to where they could go."

Sherman Pyatt with the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor speaks at Pinckney Park
Credit Victoria Hansen / SC Public Radio

Pyatt  says they often bought land auctioned off or sold by plantation owners.  Like Simeon, they farmed or fished,  frequently  establishing entire freedmen communities.  He points to place like Mount Pleasant's Scanlonville, now known as Remleys Point, Maryville, Lincolville, North Charleston's Liberty Hill and James Island's Sol Legare.

Pyatt says what was unusual about Simeon Pinckney's situation is his land stayed in the family for generations.  "There are also so many pockets of areas just like this that need and can be identified, " said Pyatt.  "But it's up to the gatekeeper who wants to see that."

Pyatt tries to find and preserve other freedmen land.  But he says lost deeds and disputes over ownership can make it difficult.  Even the Pinckney property had its trouble.  Jerome Harris says a family fued was ultimately decided by the State Supreme Court and he decided then to honor his mother's wishes.

"She really wanted people to know about the history of the land," he said.

Members of the James Island History Commission where also on hand for the plaque unveiling.  Paul Hedden says he hopes the town maintains the lands primitive feel.  "The whole island looked like this, " said Hedden.  "It was covered over with forest and underbrush, except for the cotton fields."

New homes and subdivisions now dot the road instead of cotton and neighbors are grateful for the green space.  They're also intrigued by the park's  history.

"Oh cool.  I had no idea," said Meredith Dyer, a mother of two with her kids at the playground swings.