NORTH WALES — A figure from a century and a half ago, and hundreds of miles away, could have valuable lessons for 2020, a North Wales Borough Council member noted at a meeting Tuesday. 

Councilman Jim Cherry closed council's Oct. 13 meeting by sharing stories of an ancestor, including a passage that may ring true today.

"Whereas, a large number of people in the County of Edgefield are suffering from employment, and are without the necessary means of subsistence; and whereas, the condition of these people appeals to every instinct of humanity for relief; and whereas, the suffering and want is not the result of their indolence or improvidence, but the consequence of their adhesion to and support of Republican principles and their advocates; and whereas, their political belief and action has called down upon them the prescriptive policies of the enemies of universal liberty, which have culminated in the driving of these people from their former homes, and refusing them employment, as well as the formation of leagues against their further continuance to be residents of the County of Edgefield; and whereas their unfortunate condition demands immediate consideration and relief." 

"I just wanted to read it, because I think some of it kind of applies to our current status in this country," Cherry said.

That passage comes from "Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator," a biography written by Cherry's cousin Kevin M. Cherry Sr. about Lawrence Cain, a shared ancestor who lived in Edgefield, South Carolina following the Civil War. While the circumstances are vastly different from today, Cherry told council at the close of their meeting, he sees some similarities to today.

"It was basically about people being judged on their political beliefs, on their faith, on the color of their skin, who they supported. And you see a lot of that happening in this country now," he said.

"It's a short speech, but I think it applies to a lot of things that are happening in this country right now, where we've put neighbor against neighbor because of one's beliefs, whether it's political or philosophical or religious," Cherry said.

Cain was born a slave, sold as a child, forced to join the army of the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, then served as an aide to a general for all four years of that conflict, was wounded at Appomattox, then was the first student of mixed race to graduate with a law degree from the University of South Carolina, Cherry told council.

"He helped build a town, a church, a school for slave children, he became a senator ... and he was my great-great-grandfather," Cherry said.

The book was written by Cherry's cousin last year, and the COVID pandemic and related shutdowns have led family members across the country to take a deeper look at the family's heritage and history. Records from the era are scarce, but Cain is believed to have been of Creek Indian or possibly African-American slave background, and the family now has copies of the original documents showing Cain sold as a slave as a child. After his first master died, Cherry said, Cain was sold to a new owner who soon joined the Confederate army, and acted as an aide while earning his own military rank in that conflict. Once the war ended, Cain graduated from law school, and used the law degree in combination to his military background to run for South Carolina's state legislature, first as a state representative and then a state senator.

"There was a lot of voter suppression. They tried to suppress the freed slave vote, they intimidated them, they formed a group called the 'Red Shirts' that were like, pre-Klan — it was all about political power, they had had enough and wanted to be back in power," Cherry said.

Cain was a Republican, and that era's Democratic party led voter suppression efforts and ultimately drove Cain from Edgefield, burning down his house and forcing him to escape to Columbia, South Carolina, the state's capitol.

"That's where the documents kind of go missing: one minute, he's alive, and the next minute he's dead. They said he died of 'consumption,' which back then was tuberculosis, but all in the records leading up to that time, he was healthy," Cherry said.

The rest of Cain's family then fled to New Jersey, Cherry said, and documents found by his cousin have shown that Cain was reported to have been buried in South Carolina, but so far the family has been unable to find exactly where.

"When they went down there to try to find the grave, they found nothing. It's like they absolutely just tried to wipe his existence off of the map. And he was only 42 years old," Cherry said.

He added that Cain has always been a figure of special interest because Cain was elected to the South Carolina legislature at the same age Cherry joined borough council, and said reading that passage recently took a new meaning amid the turbulence of 2020.

"He had stood on the steps of the courthouse in South Carolina, and basically pleaded with the people: 'Hey, we need to get it together. Stop judging people because they align themselves with a political party or not, or based on their faith, or their skin color," he said.

"I thought some of that applies to what's going on in this country right now."

In recent weeks, Cherry said he's seen friends and neighbors spar with each other over lawn signs and social media posts, and said he hopes they draw the lesson to not let friendships be ruined over politics.

"I've seen in North Wales, where somebody supports a certain thing, they support a certain group or certain political party, and their neighbors come out against them," he said.

"You judge a person by the content of their character. That's the philosophy I've always had, but it was ironic to read a speech which basically stated what was going on back then, in 1874, and apply it to what's going on in 2020, and a lot of it's the same."

Political violence this past summer appeared eerily similar to cases a century and a half ago, Cherry said, like when the Red Shirts stood in front of a courthouse with weapons drawn, intimidating potential voters.

"They said 'We will throw you out of power, burn your house down, kill your family,' and it was horrible — just because somebody had a different point of view," he said.

"If we don't remember the past, we're condemned to repeat it, and I don't think a lot of people remember where we've come from."

Council President Jim Sando added that Cain's speech echoed comments he made earlier this summer, calling for calm across the community as election day draws nearer.

"I surely hope that our community would take a step back, and respect everyone else in the community. And for the most part, I would say that that is what we're seeing," he said.

"Although we are still seeing signs disappearing from people's property, and we're a few weeks out from whatever happens in November, I would once again call on our community's better angels between now and, let's say, January 20th, and we'll see how things work out, and we hope that we can figure out how to do that in a respectful way," Sando said.

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