The Turks of South Carolina, also known as Sumter Turks or Turks of Sumter County,[1] are a group of people who have lived in the general area of Sumter County, South Carolina since the late 18th century. According to Professor Glen Browder, "they have always been a tight-knit and isolated community of people who identified as being of Turkish descent".[2]

As of 2018, they numbered no more than 400 in the town of Dalzell.[3]

Misrepresentations of the community

Dr. Terri Ann Ognibene, a "Sumter Turk" herself, has discussed the misrepresentations of the community:

We are the Turkish people of Sumter County, in the state of South Carolina. Our story has never been told fully and accurately. We have roots that extend all the way back to the Revolutionary War. We fought in the Civil War and in the World Wars I and II. But for centuries our rich history has been overlooked and misrepresented, our cultural identity questioned, and we were denied equal access to education because of the tones of our skin. We persevered, and we prevailed. Now, though our spirit endures, the Turkish community faces new and different challenges as a fading ethnicity in the twenty-first century.[4]

Early examples of the community's misrepresentation date to at least the 19th century. The tax collector of Sumter sent an inquiry to the South Carolina Committee on the Colored Population, dated December 7, 1858, as to whether the "descendants of Egyptians and Indians" residing in Sumter should be taxed under the bracket of "Free Blacks, mulattoes and mestizos, or as whites."[5][better source needed] In the early 20th century, some believed that they were of primarily Native American background, with some admixture of Turkish.[6] They have been mistakenly connected to a family of "Free Moors" who resided in Charleston (see Free Moors of South Carolina).


In their study on the Sumter Turks, Dr. Terri Ann Ognibene and Professor Glen Browder said the following regarding identity and assimilation:

Our investigation has documented that the community of mainly dark-skinned people was founded by the Ottoman Turk, and it was nurtured by a nexus of patriarchy, blood, marriage, color, isolation, discrimination, and identity. The Benenhaleys began their secluded existence at the beginning of the 1800s and others joined them over the years. These huddled families—mainly the Benenhaleys, Oxendines, Rays, Hoods, Buckners, and Lowreys—assumed a common identity as an outcast group, and they kept to themselves for many generations in rural South Carolina. The Turkish people neither blended openly and prominently into mainstream society nor dissipated in the shadows as scattered refugees. They sustained themselves as the single clear case of an ethnic community that went its own separate way toward cultural isolation for almost two centuries. The community numbered about five hundred at its peak in the mid-twentieth century; and only in the past few decades have they begun assimilating into broader society.[7]


The "Turk" community traces its history back to an early settler from the Ottoman Empire, Joseph Benenhaley, who reputedly served the colonial cause in the American Revolutionary War.[8] He made his way to South Carolina, where he served as a scout for General Thomas Sumter during the American Revolution. General Sumter then gave Benenhaley land on his plantation to farm and raise a family. A few outsiders married into the family, but most who identified with the ostracized community, and their progeny considered themselves people of Turkish descent. By the mid-20th century, they numbered several hundred.[8]

The Turks of South Carolina today include surnames such as Benenhaley, Oxendine, Scott, Hood, Buckner, Lowery, Chavis, and Ray.[9]

Marriages in the community

The community has generally been "cautious about outside society." Consequently, "few outsiders were accepted in the community, and Turkish people mainly married within their own crowd for generations". Hence, the repetition of family surnames throughout the generations. It is very likely that while there were no forced marriages "there were unwritten societal customs in each group regarding the acceptable parameters of marriage".[10]

Genetic studies

DNA reports on living members of the Turkish community who descend from Joseph Benenhaley showed that the genetic profile indicates significant connections to the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/North African regions, along with substantial west European admixture and some potential evidence of Native American linkages. Notably, the DNA results showed no discernible contributions from Sub-Saharan Africa, contradicting criticism that the community had claimed Turkish ancestry to cover African roots.[11]


The community's heritage has reflected their long experience of isolation and discrimination in rural South Carolina.[12] Due to segregation policies in the past, there were "Turkish schools, Turkish school buses, and Turkish cinemas in this period."[3]

See also


  1. ^ Browder, Glen; Ognibene, Terri Ann (2017). "Who Was Joseph Benenhaley? Exploring the 200-Year-Old Mystery of Sumter County's Turkish Patriarch and His People" (PDF). Carologue. 33 (2–3): 20.
  2. ^ Alani, Hannah (2018), Hidden for centuries, SC descendants of Ottoman Turks come forward with stories of racism, The Post and Courier, retrieved 23 December 2020
  3. ^ a b Housand, Tim (2018). "The Turkish people of Sumter County". Charleston City Paper. Retrieved 23 December 2020. ... the Turkish people of Sumter County represent a complete enigma. Sumter County is a relatively poor, rural county and there aren't a whole lot of Turkish residents, comprising only at most 400 people around the town of Dalzell. A slight majority have born with the same last name: Benenhaley.
  4. ^ Browder & Ognibene 2017, 23.
  5. ^ Hill, S. Pony (2012). Strangers in Their Own Land: South Carolina's State Tribes. Columbia: BackInTyme Press.
  6. ^ Taylor, Rosser H. (1942). Ante-Bellum South Carolina: A Social and Cultural History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  7. ^ Ognibene & Browder 2018, 103.
  8. ^ a b Ognibene, Terri Ann; Browder, Glen (2018), South Carolina's Turkish People: A History and Ethnology, University of South Carolina, p. 64, ISBN 9781611178593
  9. ^ Gregorie, Anne King (2018). History of Sumter County, South Carolina. Sumter, SC: Sumter County Genealogical Society. p. 468. ISBN 978-0893088576.
  10. ^ Ognibene & Browder 2018, 20.
  11. ^ Browder & Ognibene 2017, 22.
  12. ^ Ognibene & Browder 2018, 19.


Further reading