- South Carolina's Turkish People: A History and Ethnology by Terri Ann Ognibene and Glen Browder
In South Carolina's Turkish People: A History and Ethnology, Terri Ann Ognibene and Glen Browder tackle the history, culture, and contemporary condition of one of the South's best-known yet least understood ethnic enclaves, the Turkish people or "Turks" of Sumter County, South Carolina. The Turkish people, like other groups in the South, have been marginalized by outsiders and scholars who have labeled them "tri-racial isolates," "Mestizos," and "little races" because they do not fit neatly into the physical, cultural, and social norms associated with the southern black-white racial binary (pp. 9, 24, 2). Ognibene, a Turkish descendant, and Browder, a Sumter County native, essentially present two books in one using two styles. Part 1 encompasses a traditional history with written primary sources, while Part 2 relies mostly on oral history interviews with Turkish informants and their relatives. Through these methods, the authors present clear research objectives to present the "full history and true story" of the Turkish people (p. xi).
Browder examines in fine detail the traditional narrative of the Turkish people by using primary sources, including DNA evidence, and scrutinizing the secondary literature to conclude that the traditional narrative is likely accurate. [End Page 671] Central to the traditional narrative is the patriarch of the community, Joseph Benenhaley, a "'Caucasian of Arab descent'" and a subject of the Ottoman Empire (p. 3). Benenhaley somehow made his way to South Carolina and fought with Thomas Sumter in the Revolutionary War, which yielded Benenhaley some land and status as a white man. Benenhaley was joined by a man named John Scott, who also fought in the Revolution, as well as some Oxendines and other families of Native American descent from Robeson County, North Carolina. The Turkish people were darker-skinned than their white neighbors and lighter-skinned than their African American neighbors, which led to their marginalization. Through endogamy, self-induced isolation, and outside discrimination, the Turkish people maintained an ethnic subculture.
For her part, Ognibene gives voice to living Turkish people in order to confirm the conclusions reached in Part 1 and further discusses how and why the Turkish people are considered a separate ethnic entity. Ognibene inserts herself into the narrative, using family lore, her own experiences, and interviews with four main informants who tell gripping stories of segregation, discrimination, ancestry, integration, and the contemporary community. Over time the community has become less of an ethnic enclave due to intermarriage, lessening racism, and outmigration. Ognibene touches on the controversy surrounding the Native American ancestry of the community, which has been exacerbated by the establishment of the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians. Ognibene's informants acknowledge the community's Native ancestry but deny that it has been a historical identity in the community. While the voices and insights of the Turkish people themselves are needed and welcomed, perhaps not enough voices were included, especially surrounding the controversies over Native identity.
South Carolina's Turkish People is a welcome addition to southern history and ethnic studies but still leaves a lot of unanswered questions for future scholars. Both parts of the book read almost like a research journal, following the authors' discoveries while introducing previously unknown or underutilized resources. The book largely meets its objectives and confirms the traditional narrative of the Turkish people but stops short of presenting the "true" history, as it sets out to do. While the Benenhaley family was among the founding lineages of the community and had Turkish origins, other important families contributed as well but do not get much consideration. Why did these families join the community, and how did they shape its culture and identity? How does the history of the Turkish people fit into the historiography and ethnic studies of the South? Is Native identity a recent phenomenon, and how does it interact with the traditional narrative?