A quick tour through Aiken County's Historical Museum reveals the first days of Aiken's beginnings, and front and center are the five men responsible for its founding.
Prince Rivers, Charles Hayne, Samuel Lee, Gloster Holland and William Jones were all black state representatives during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and gained prominent positions that allowed them to influence decisions in the rise of Aiken County, according to documentation provided by the Aiken County Historical Museum.
Aiken County was founded on March 10, 1871. While descriptive details of the men's entire lives before the Civil War and after the Reconstruction Era have been lost through history, their accomplishments helped sculpt the path to Aiken's future once they came together.
"Most likely, they were selected by the Federal Government to come in and serve their positions," said Lauren Virgo, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum. "Even though they came from different sides of the war, they came together (afterward) to form this county."
Aiken County was organized in 1871 from portions of Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington and Orangeburg counties after they were deemed too powerful in terms of land size.
There is some debate that Aiken was the only county founded during Reconstruction. However, it is possible other counties may have also been formed at this time, Virgo said.
Rags to riches – to rags again
While all five men are noted for their involvement in Aiken's construction, the most well known, or at least the man with the most available information, is Rivers, Virgo said.
Rivers was born into slavery in Beaufort County in 1824. During this time, Rivers somehow learned to read and write, though it was illegal to teach a slave to do so at this time. He additionally was noted to be a well-known coach driver – a skill that would eventually lead to his freedom.
After relocating to Edgefield County in 1861, he drove his master's family to a relative's house. In the dead of night, it is reported, he stole a horse and ran away. He eventually joined the Union Army, serving as a soldier and then a sergeant, making him one of the first people to serve in the army’s black regiment.
After the war, Rivers returned to the Edgefield County area and settled on a farm near Hamburg. By 1876, he was elected as a delegate for Edgefield County in the State Constitutional Convention before being elected as a state legislator, which allowed him to lead the commission that selected the site of Aiken County's present-day courthouse.
During this time he served alongside Rep. Samuel Lee, who was a freeman and the first black man admitted to the S.C. Bar, and Sen. Charles Hayne, a freeman who had served in the Confederate Army and was also Aiken’s postmaster, Virgo said.
Rivers later served as mayor, county coroner and justice of the peace, all local offices newly available to black candidates.
He additionally was named head of the commission that drew the new county's boundary lines.
Despite making unbelievable strides for the time, Rivers was unable to surpass the white paramilitary attacks and violence directed against black Republicans to suppress the black vote during the election of 1876 – also known as the Red Shirt Rebellion, Virgo said.
It was during this time that former Confederate officer Wade Hampton was elected as governor, which led to white politicians ejecting African Americans from their political positions.
This led Rivers to revert back to his original position as a coachman for a grocery delivery service.
"He, unfortunately, ended up right where he started," Virgo said.
Despite never obtaining political positions again, Rivers went on to be a night watchman for The Highland Park Hotel – where he was described as a "trusted employee" in his obituary – until he became sick and later died of Bright's disease of the kidneys at 65.
Gone but not forgotten
There is little available information on the other four men outside of their connection with founding Aiken County, with even less being available on Gloster Holland and William Jones, who don't even have known photographs available.
Aiken County Historical Museum information shows that Samuel Lee and Charles Hayne were both born free men, and both served in the Confederate army.
Like Rivers, Lee moved to Hamburg where he was elected first to the House of Representatives from Edgefield County and then from Aiken County.
Hayne additionally served as voter registrar in Edgefield County in 1867, and then on several other committees, including the U.S. postmaster of the town of Aiken until 1880.
Virgo said that the history of the five founders was not taught in the Aiken County school system when she was growing up, and she is unaware if they are being talked about today or if there are any specific monuments identifying them in Aiken.
However, Virgo said the legacy of the men is being taught through an awareness campaign, such as the Traveling Trunk program, in which the Aiken County Historical Museum partners with local schools to teach about the founders during the county's Founders Day.
In 2015, Aiken County Council passed a resolution to proclaim March 10 each year as Founders Day in Aiken County.
Virgo said the museum is continuing its awareness campaign, especially with the 150th anniversary of Aiken County coming up in 2021.
Celebrate Founders Day
The Aiken County Historical Museum will hold its annual Founders Day event on Saturday, March 7.
This year, the museum will host several programs related to Aiken County's African American founders and their legacy. All programs are free and open to the public with no pre-registration required:
• At 11 a.m., there will be a program titled "Introduction of Charleston's International African American Museum" with speaker the Rev. DeMett Jenkins, International African American Museum's Lilly Director of Education and Engagement for Faith Based Communities.
• At 1 p.m., there will be a lectured titled "African American Education During Reconstruction" with speaker Lauren Virgo, director of the Aiken County Historical Museum.
• At 2 p.m., there will be a program titled "Spoken Word Poetry, Performative Dance, and an update on Aiken's Center for African American History, Art, & Culture" with speakers Eva Jackson and Melencia Johnson of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, and performers Willie Alma Finnie for poetry recitation and Amber Watson with A.Watt Dance Co. for dance.
• At 3 p.m., there will be a lecture titled "The Importance of Commemorating the Founding of Aiken County" with speaker Wayne O’Bryant, historian.