Many of the best stories of our enslaved ancestors have been forever lost to the graveyards because too often, those among the living never bothered to write them down when those who remembered these stories were alive to share them told these tales. Fortunately, these are those of us who listened and were willing to preserve them to inspire future generations. This is one such story.
As I grew up, my mother, Pearl Maxwell Fordham, who died in 2014 at the age of 91, and other elders would occasionally tell stories about being raised by her legendary grandfather James Buchanan (J.B.) Maxwell. Born in slavery Flat Rock, North Carolina to Jackson and Selina Maxwell in 1854, they were owned by a James Maxwell who also owned a plantation in that area. After Emancipation, J.B. and his family literally walked from Flat Rock to the Four Mile section of Mt. Pleasant, SC to be reunited with family members who had been sold to South Carolina.
Around 1873, J.B. managed to attend and graduate from Charleston’s Avery Institute, and would later use his education to help his community. He married Rebecca Mitchell in 1876 and opened up a general store in the Four Mile community, across from the present location of Olive branch AME Church on Highway 17. Mrs. Elizabeth Scott Ellis, who is now in her 90s, recalled being in the store when two “hoodlums” (as J.B. would often refer to them) stole some sausages from the store while he had gone to the rear of the store to get some thread and needle for her mother. “I was so scared that Mr. J.B. think that I did it that I ran out of the store and did not go back for a long time.”
My mother often spoke of him voting when few other blacks did so. Last year, my cousin Sherryl Washington James, a local librarian, located a document that proved this fact. The Congressional Record of November 12, 1879 included a transcript of a trial regarding black voters in Mt. Pleasant allegedly voting while illiterate. A number of blacks took the stand and cross examiners embarrassed them by proving that they could not read nor understood the basics of voting or government. However, the transcript shows that when Attorney G. R. Walker called J.B. Maxwell to testify, he shocked the lawyer by showing and proving that not only could he read, he knew who and what he was voting for.
J.B. was a proud man who supported his family. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, in spite of hard times, he refused to allow my grandmother and mother to work. My mother would often tell of how in order to make ends meet, my grandmother would sneak off to Boone Hall Plantation with my mother when he was off to the store and they would pick tomatoes in the fields to secretly earn extra money. At Boone Hall Plantation today in the building that used to serve as the commissary, there are pictures of blacks working in the tomato fields during that same period.
Along with working and managing the store, J.B. served his community through his education. He insisted on correct English from his children and grandchildren, as well as the children who came to the store, and would help locals read their mail and legal documents. He was also the first black Notary Public in the Mt. Pleasant area. Some years ago, local historian Dorothy Fludd presented me with a document that he notarized on August 22, 1931 regarding a widow’s pension for Elizabeth Jenkins, whose husband Edmund served in the Union Army during the Civil War. As part of the document, J.B. included an interesting sentence that sums up the difficulty of preserving local histories of African Americans during this era. “”She cannot furnish evidence of her birth from the Public record because they were none kept in those days.”
Fortunately, my mother was alive when I was given this document. Upon showing it to her, she smiled and said, “Yeah, that’s Papa’s handwriting.”
The Charleston Evening Post of October 8, 1940 reported J.B. Maxwell’s death and announced that his funeral would be the next day at Olive Branch AME Church. Had it not been or those of us in the family who remembered, his story would have been buried with him. If this story encourages you to preserve the stories of your ancestors to inspire the generations of the future, it will have served its purpose.