Our Family History: The Story of Jamestown
FLORENCE COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - South Carolina is full of southern history that is seeped into the soil from the Grand Strand to the Lowcountry and over to the Upstate.
However, in Jamestown, a small community nestled in Florence County, a family meets every year to celebrate more than just a reunion.
The James family meets on several acres of land dating back to the 1870s and their family’s patriarch, Ervin James.
“Shortly after slavery, five years, Ervin James did not want to be a tenet farmer or sharecropper,” Terry James said. “He wanted his own land to have true freedom.”
Ervin James is Terry’s great-great-great grandfather.
He said he isn’t sure where Ervin got the money following the Civil War, but somehow, he bought a few acres from a white man named Eli McKissick.
“Can you imagine standing around former people who used to own you,” Terry James said. “[To] own people like you and you’re with them buying stuff. I said this dude was amazing.”
The beauty of it all, Ervin James was just getting started.
Plank by plank, he built wooden homes that still stand today, fostered a self-sustained community and maintained a safe haven for Black South Carolinians.
“You had several of these,” Terry James said pointing to an old home. “It’s like 22 of them of these cabins stretched all over this place. This is just one of them and everything was grown here.”
It’s that pride that encourages the James family and friends alike to return to Jamestown every year for a celebration.
From the artistry of craftsmanship to the styling of woodwork and the soul of original outdoor cooking, it’s all an appreciation of Ervin James and the legacy he left behind and a promise to never let it go.
“As his descendants, we have an assignment to make sure Jamestown not only survive but to thrive,” Terry James said. “No selling around here. None, zero, zilch.”
As Terry James uncovered more of his family’s history, he discovered a connection unlike anything he’d ever imagined.
“I like connecting the dots and that was an important dot,” he said.
“When you dig and dig and you can’t find anything and you hit walls and then someone comes and knocks your wall down,” Helen Thompson said. “It was [amazing].”
The James-McKissick Connection
As the James family dug into their history, they ended up finding the family who sold them their prized possession.
While they searched for their family history in Florence County, Helen Thompson was tirelessly and exhaustingly trying to find her own.
“Some of the original records are just illegible,” Thompson said. “When I first started genealogy I was asking my dad about his family and all he would ever tell me is that his grandfather was a methodist preacher named Eli McKissick.”
With little information, Thompson turned to government records.
“The McKissick name, I wanted to take it as far back as I could,” Thompson said.
So, she went digging, both near and far with all hands on deck.
“Back before the internet, I just went to archives and libraries,” Thompson said. “I was traveling to Greenwood, Harleyville, different places. It was pretty tedious; I drug the kids around doing all of that.”
Through her research, Thompson traced her family tree from back to her great-grandfather until her phone rang.
“I got a call from Terry James,” she recalled. “I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it.”
“When I met her, I could feel a sigh of relief,” Terry James said.
On the other side of the phone, James had quite the story connecting their grandfathers.
“Eli McKissick, in my research, bought 300 acres for $500 plus,” James said. “But he sold a portion of that land to Ervin James for $700.”
Facing backlash from the sale following the Civil War, McKissick fled to Georgia while Ervin James stayed put, named this property “Jamestown,” and created a self-sustained Black community that’s still family-owned today.
Following their emotional hour–long conversation, Terry James extended a southern invitation for Thompson to come to his annual family reunion.
“It was real exciting,” Thompson said. “I had to go see it. I had to go see that property.”
“She just looked around and she started crying,” Terry James recalled. “It was emotional for me too.”
And what she saw blew her mind.
“Just knowing that that family is carrying this thing on generation after generation just means so much,” Thompson said. “They’ve not let the history drop, they wanted to pass it on through generations and it’s just incredible.”
While no census document will ever reveal the deal behind their grandfathers’ 1870s agreement, both James and Thompson are assured their family history will be connected forever.
“I don’t know his motive,” Thompson said speaking of her great-great-grandfather. “But yet what came out of that is just great.”
“90 or 100-something years later we found each other,” James said.
The beauty of Jamestown and its story will live on forever as it sits on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visit the Jamestown Foundation to learn more about upcoming events and to learn if you may be a part of the James family heritage.
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