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The master builder: Renty Tucker learned his craft as a slave and left his mark as a free man

By Robert D. Insley
Special to the Observer

I first read the name Renty Tucker in Charles Joyner’s “Down by the Riverside.” Professor Joyner’s work is considered the most comprehensive research ever published on the slave community of the Waccamaw Neck rice culture that flourished during the 19th century in Georgetown County. Renty Tucker was a highly skilled slave carpenter at Hagley plantation.

Plowden C.J. Weston, the owner of Hagley and Weehawka, an adjacent plantation, was married to Emily Frances Esdaile, originally from England. Tucker had built the Westons’ palatial summer home on Pawleys Island, now known as the Pelican Inn. He also built a slave chapel that served the enslaved African-American Hagley people as well as those from Weehawka. This chapel, named St. Mary’s, could seat around 300 worshipers and was quite possibly the most elaborate and elegant slave chapel ever constructed anywhere in the South.

As I began researching Renty Tucker’s story, both during slavery and especially after emancipation, I discovered what a long and notable life he had lived. During his entire adult life, he provided for his spouses as well as numerous children and grandchildren. He became a respected and beloved civic leader in Georgetown County, serving as county coroner and as a member of the Georgetown City Board of Health. He was an active member and sexton of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church. He was the founder and builder of a humble but beautiful church in Georgetown, created so that emancipated African-Americans who wished to do so, could continue worshiping as Episcopalians, the primary denomination during the time of slavery in the Waccamaw region.

Renty’s remains were interred with honors at Prince George Winyah, a church known to also have served a significant number of affluent white parishioners. In addition, he accrued a modest amount of wealth, leaving a valuable estate to his heirs. In some ways he achieved what some may call the American Dream in spite of the seemingly insurmountable challenges of living as a former slave during reconstruction and into the Jim Crow Era.

Renty Tucker, a most remarkable man, has almost been forgotten by all but a few Georgetonians.

On his first census in 1870, Renty Tucker’s birth year was recorded as 1842. This was a mistake on someone’s part. On each successive census, as well as in other documents until his death, his birth date was recorded as July 1831, with his birthplace listed as South Carolina.

In the summer of 1862, it was almost impossible to send mail from overseas into the South during the Civil War. Rev. William W. Malet, Emily Weston’s brother-in-law, traveled from England and visited Hagley plantation with news of the death of Emily’s mother. Rev. Malet later published the diary of his trip. In his notes, he stated that “all of the 350 negroes except Pembra (about 70 yrs. who was brought over from Africa as a child) were born on the estate.”

In February 1871, Renty Tucker opened an account with the Freedman’s Bank. On the application he stated that his parents’ names were Ben and Delia (Tucker), both deceased. His signature on this application appears in perfect cursive script with a beautiful fluid stroke. An ancestry.com search shows that his mother, Delia, was born about 1795 and, in 1855 at the age of 60, was an infirmary nurse on Laurel Hill (another Weston family plantation located on present day Brookgreen Gardens property). Transcripts from ancestry.com also show that Tucker had one brother named Summer (or possibly Samuel), who died in 1864. He had four sisters: Nancy, Harriet, Mary Ann and Salena. Not much has been found concerning Tucker’s father, Ben.

During his visit, Malet baptized Tucker’s infant daughter, “Dido” (Adeline). He stated in his diary that Renty and Josephine, his wife, used the “title” of Tucker, and that the slaves had family names but seldom used them except among themselves.

Emily’s appraisal of the estate in 1864 (Plowden Weston died in 1864 and Emily returned to England), as well as earlier Weston family papers, listed Renty Tucker only as “Renty – good carpenter and house servant,” and his wife “Josephine – washer and seamstress.”

During this research project, I believe that I have come to know Renty Tucker almost intimately, and I mean no disrespect when referring to him occasionally as simply Renty. I feel that his first name has character. The origin of the first name Renty is unclear. I have occasionally found others named Renty on various slave records, so this first name was not unheard of.

One of the major things I admire about this man is his mastery of the building arts. If one examines the architectural and structural details of Pawleys Island’s Pelican Inn, it becomes very evident that, at the relatively young age of 26 or 27, Renty Tucker had already achieved the status of a master craftsman.

Joyner writes that Tucker was one of the most talented carpenters in All Saints Parish, and it was said that he had been trained in fine carpentry in England. In some cases, it is known that slaves were sent to Charleston or even England to be taught particular skills, such as cabinetry. Apparently, no documentation has been found to prove this trip occurred. Elizabeth Collins, Emily Weston’s maid, writes that the Westons traveled to England about every two years during their marriage.

The only possible evidence substantiating that Renty trained in England that I have been able to locate is a newspaper announcement of passengers departing to England. The May 26, 1848 American and Commercial Daily Advertiser in Baltimore announced, in part, “In the steamship Cambria, sailed from New York on Wednesday for Liverpool: Mr. Plowden C.J. Weston, lady and servant” were on board. Another research “wall,” as slaves were rarely, if ever, named on passenger lists.

Commonly, senior craftspeople took on younger slaves who showed a particular interest or a talent as apprentices. Carpenters were regularly trained on the plantation. Thomas Bonneau was a slave and master carpenter for Robert F.W. Allston. Bonneau reportedly stated in a prideful manner that he did not send out “jack-legs” (amateurs). It is possible that Tucker apprenticed under Bonneau. There were many other “prized” slave carpenters known on the Waccamaw Neck, and I can only speculate as to whom Tucker might have trained under. I have also not found the names of any young people that Tucker mentored, as he surely must have.

Tucker was commonly sent, unsupervised, with a crew of carpenters under his direction, to various locales around All Saints Parish, according to Joyner. Good carpenters were in demand and were able to hire out to other plantations, paying a portion of their profit to their masters and keeping the balance. There is a record of James Sparkman hiring a carpenter for a time and paying $120, which would be approximately two times the cost of a horse. It was quite an accomplishment when one considers the numerous “big houses,” slave quarters, chapels, summer cottages, rice mills, barns, stables and workshops, as well as rice trunks, that were built. The overwhelming evidence, from old illustrations, as well as the buildings that survived, shows a highly-developed level of skill and craftsmanship. It is even more admirable when considering the relatively simple hand tools that were employed during that period of American rural development.

Tucker and at least three of his sons, Josiah, St. Julian and Henry, continued as carpenters. Homebuilder and carpenter Daniel Grate of Pawleys Island talked with me about his ancestors tracing back to slavery days. All the men in his line continued in the trade; father and grandfather mentoring their children and grandchildren.

Concerning the Westons’ summer residence, Elizabeth Collins stated in her diary that it was “a summer residence lately built by Renty. I can only compare this building to a castle so lofty that we could find a cool place almost in any part of the house.” Their name for this summer home and the original 5.5 acres that it stood on was “Weston’s Zoyland.”

The property was purchased by Weston around 1844. In 1846, Gov. Robert F.W. Allston constructed the South Causeway. At the time it was known as Allston’s Bank and is believed to be the oldest causeway in continuous use in South Carolina. Hagley plantation became a busy and productive community. There were various workshops and service outbuildings where blacksmithing, carpentry, boatbuilding and agricultural work were performed. By the mid to late 1850s, the stage was set for the construction of a magnificent summer cottage to escape from the heat and malarial mosquitoes on the mainland. The building was constructed of cypress and heart pine, probably hewn in the carpentry shop at Hagley and then transported to the island.

The Roman numerals chiseled in the cut lumber can still be seen today. It is speculated that these numbers assisted in the proper assembly of structural elements, and is supporting evidence that Tucker prefabricated some of the structural elements in his workshop back on the mainland. Daniel Grate, who worked with his father, told me about being under the Pelican Inn and marveling at the length of the timbers, some of which “were at least 24 feet.” Assembly was accomplished with wooden pegs, cut nails, and mortise and tenon joints. The elegant Gothic-style pointed arches, almost a signature of Renty Tucker’s work, can be seen in the surrounding porches.

In 1858, the Westons were planning the construction of a large slave chapel. Starting in the early part of 1859, Renty Tucker must have been immersed in this project. It has been written that he first constructed a scale model, presumably to confirm that the proportions were architecturally correct. The Westons ordered very elaborate architectural and religious elements from England, the quality of which were unavailable in America at the time. They obtained stained glass windows, carved oak stalls and an English granite baptismal font quarried, then carved, near Emily’s birthplace. In addition, a gold chalice for Holy Communion and a clock and bell for the tower were included in the imported shipment.

Construction commenced in early 1859. By the time the Westons returned from England at the end of November 1859, Tucker had erected the church tower. By the spring of 1860, the stained-glass lancet windows and the clock and chimes had arrived. A formal opening occurred later that spring. I am curious as to how he knew the exact proportions for framing these components, or did he simply leave rough openings until the shipment arrived?

In the summer of 1862, Rev. Malet described St. Mary’s as a pretty wooden church with lancet windows, double walls about 3 feet wide and in the tower a “capital” clock. Malet also writes that the thick double walls were to ensure coolness inside the chapel.

Rev. Henry D. Bull, All Saints pastor from 1925 to 1953, using parish records in his book, “All Saints Church, Waccamaw 1739-1968 – The Parish, The Place, The People,” writes that, “The chapel was cruciform in shape, had a high deep chancel, the transepts were deep and high.” He wrote further that, “It was no mere preaching hall, but the creation of someone who had poured upon it good taste, reverence, and a love of beauty.”

With the death of Plowden Weston in 1864 and Emily returning to her English homeland, the chapel became neglected. Weston’s friend and cousin, William St. Julian Mazyck of Charleston, inherited the property with the stipulation of providing Emily an “annuity of 420 pounds sterling” for life. I feel that Tucker must have had a favorable relationship with Mazyck, as he and Josephine named one of their sons St. Julian.

Following the Civil War, with the absence of slave labor and the decline of large scale rice production, the church and surrounding grounds continued to decline. Sometime around 1866 or 1867, Mazyck, concerned about the fate of St. Mary’s, began to have the valuable components dismantled and donated these items to other parish churches in the region.

The magnificent English stained glass windows can now be admired above the altar and over the side doors of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church in Georgetown. They also accepted the bell and clock from the church tower, as well as the gold communion chalice.

I believe that Tucker likely played a significant role in the removal and reinstallation of these church components, as no one was more qualified or more intimately familiar with the chapel. Rev. Bull wrote that Tucker moved the bell from St. Mary’s to Prince George Winyah, and later became sexton of Prince George, where he rang the bell every Sunday.

When Tucker died and his body was buried at Prince George, Rev. Bull stated that “the bell was tolled for his funeral.”

Tucker remained on the Waccamaw Neck until at least February 1871. On his 1871 bank application, Tucker stated that he was a carpenter employed by a John Richardson. I do not know if Tucker was acting as an independent builder or if he was a more traditional employee. There is a record of a John Richardson of nearby Waterford Plantation.

Following the Civil War, better paying jobs and opportunities were available in Georgetown, especially in the lumber, forest products and shipping industries. A significant number of freed slaves migrated from the plantations to the city. When the 1880 census was taken, Tucker listed his residence as 175 Orange St., Georgetown. County land records show that Tucker purchased property described as lot 57 on the original city map. He purchased this parcel for the sum of $750 on March 29, 1875, from Robert E. Frazier, a successful businessman who served several terms as intendant (mayor) of Georgetown. I found no record of a mortgage on the property. $750 was a considerable sum in 1875, especially considering that America was in the midst of the “Long Depression” that started with the Panic of 1873 and lasted until 1879.

He lived only one door down from Joseph Rainey, who was also born into slavery and eventually served as the first African-American member of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is likely that Tucker and Rainey were acquainted, if not friends.

Tucker found work throughout the city. The Feb. 21, 1883, Georgetown Enquirer shows the county’s annual report of expenditures for fiscal year 1881-82. Tucker’s name appears numerous times for being paid for carpentry work. Subsequent issues provide evidence of disbursements for services rendered. The Duncan Methodist Church cash accounts records show Tucker being paid on March 1, 1893, for repairing the church tower. The church records show several payments made in 1900 for various jobs performed. The 1900 census shows that Tucker claimed only one month under the column for “months not employed” for the period from June 1, 1899, to May 31, 1900. Tucker was 69 in 1900, and going strong.

Renty Tucker was an involved and active member of the community. The May 25, 1881, issue of the Georgetown Enquirer reports that he was appointed as a member of the Board of Health by the City Council. On Oct. 13, 1880, the Georgetown Enquirer ran an ad for all Democrats on the November ballot for national, state and local elections, with Tucker as their candidate for Georgetown County Coroner. Tucker served a four-year term as coroner. On June 13, 1883, the Enquirer reported on a murder case. Tucker empaneled a jury for the purpose of an inquest.

On June 14, 1893, the Georgetown Semi-Weekly Times shows Tucker, along with many prominent citizens, as a signer of a petition to allow a liquor dispensary to operate in Georgetown in accordance with the newly formed South Carolina Dispensary System, a state-run monopoly in liquor sales which operated from 1893 to 1907.

Tucker was instrumental in founding St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown around 1895. It is a humble but quite elegant chapel with pleasing lines and proportions. Tucker approached the vestry of Prince George Winyah and requested financial assistance in the construction of the chapel. The vestry did contribute, but decided to contribute as individual donors as opposed to acting as an official body of the church.

The building still stands and can be seen at 616 Duke St. The church was officially deconsecrated in 1998.

Josephine died in August 1875, according to the parish records, and she was buried on Aug. 31 in Prince George Parish. The well-known and beloved rector Alexander Glennie officiated.

Ten years later, in the 1880 census, Tucker is listed as 49 years old and his spouse is now Diana Tucker, 45.

In the 1900 census, Tucker is now 68 and married to his third wife, Nancy (née Joseph). Parish records indicate the wedding was performed on Sept. 11, 1890, at home and was officiated by the Rev. Stewart McQueen.

For almost all of his adult life, Tucker was surrounded by children (if the data are accurate, Renty had his oldest son Ben when he was 25, and his second son Gabriel at 27). He spent almost his entire lifetime providing and parenting. He also must have been an attractive “catch,” seeing that he never lacked for a spouse.

Tucker’s health must have declined during his last year of life. The signature on his last will and testament, made about a year before his death, illustrates a weakened and feeble hand.

His obituary in the Georgetown Times, dated June 26, 1913, mentions “for upwards of a year had been in feeble health. He died at the home of his daughter Ella Jenkins.” Fairly lengthy obituaries appeared not only in the Georgetown papers but in the Charleston and Columbia papers as well. The Times’ reads: “Renty’s funeral was precisely the same as would have been given a prominent white man. Dean Robottom, pastor of the church, officiated, clothed with the vestment of his holy office. He made an address in which a strong yet sympathetic tribute was paid to old Renty’s character. He spoke of Renty’s honesty, faithfulness, fearlessness and devotion to duty. Renty’s personality was impressive and his funeral illustrated the fact that sterling worth in a man is appreciated, no matter if his skin be black. A full choir of white ladies and gentleman sang at Renty’s funeral. The auditorium was well filled with sons and daughters of the best families of the city and county, for the wedding of many of whose parents old Renty had rung the joy bells.”

The parish register of Prince George reads, “Renty Tucker (col.) The old Sexton of the Church 83 years old. Faithful and loyal Communicant. Buried with honors.”

Renty Tucker’s will dated May 7, 1912, was drafted by a prominent Georgetown attorney, Capers Barr. He bequeathed a one-story dwelling on the corner of Orange and Prince Streets to his daughter Ella Jenkins. He bequeathed a two-story dwelling to his daughter Elizabeth Kairson of Jacksonville, Fla., until her death, then it would be bequeathed to his beloved granddaughter, Earline Kairson.

The appraisers of the estate inventoried 1 trunk, $1.50; 1 wash-stand, $1.50; 1 bureau, $6; 3 chairs, $1.50; 1 book-case, $12; books, $8; 1 silver watch, $7.50; 1 bureau, $2.50; 1 stool chair, $0.50; 3 chests tools, $25; cash on deposit in Bank of Georgetown, $58.45; cash on deposit in Peoples Bank, $78.55.

Ten years later, in 1923, his granddaughter Earline and his daughter Ella sold the property to Joseph Schenck of New York.

There are many walls and stumbling blocks for African-Americans tracing their history back into slavery. The people, places and stories have become so fragmented, mainly due to how their ancestors had been treated as second-class citizens. I was able to contact and speak with one of Renty Tucker’s great-granddaughters, Joyce, as well as Renty’s two times great-granddaughter Sharon, both living in the Albany, N.Y., area. They were unaware of Tucker and his accomplishments. I think this is common for many modern American families. There are very few Georgetonians who are even vaguely aware of Renty Tucker. I spoke with someone who grew up living at Pelican Inn in the 1950s and ’60s. He had never heard of the name Renty Tucker. Though Renty and his first wife, Josephine, are both buried in Prince George cemetery, no headstone has been found, and the parish’s current map does not indicate the burial site. Patti Burns, head of adult Services for the Georgetown County Library, is planning a project, utilizing the parish archives as well as the use of ground penetrating radar to locate many of the unmarked graves in the cemetery, with special hope in locating the Tuckers.

I think it would be fitting to one day erect a memorial stone honoring Renty Tucker. I further believe that his name could be memorialized by the naming of a street somewhere in the county. Either Hagley or the city of Georgetown would be appropriate locations. I like the sound of Renty Tucker Lane, and certainly would be proud to live on such a street.

About this article

This article is excerpted from a longer work by Bob Insley, a long-time Hagley resident and a retired science teacher.

“I’m not a historian, I’m just a student, a novice,” he said. “But I come to this with a science background and all the facts are verifiable.”

The work is incomplete. “Somewhere there is a photo of Renty Tucker,” Insley said. He hopes to find it. He also hopes to find descendants of Tucker who still live in the area. In the course of his research, he did find descendants who live in New York. They weren’t aware of Renty Tucker or his accomplishments.

Insley will talk about Renty Tucker and his research March 26 at 5:30 p.m. in the Georgetown County Library.

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