The Cleveland Fire: Remembering May 17, 1923

By Harvey S. Teal, this article originally appeared in the Chronicle-Independent on May 15, 2013, as “A Matter of Conscience: Remembering May 17, 1923.”

In 1929, my family moved from Chesterfield County to a farm adjoining the farm of Donald Holland’s parents in the Cassatt community. I was a year old at the time but before many years passed, Donald and I established a friendship lasting until Donald’s passing in 2003.

By the late 1930s, I became aware of Donald’s parents and oldest sister, Margaret, being survivors of the Cleveland School Fire tragedy due to hearing them discuss the matter from time to time. On several visits with Donald to his grandparent’s home located about a half mile from the Cleveland School Fire site, I occasionally heard the matter discussed.

In May 1948, I accompanied Donald to Beulah United Methodist Church for a memorial service on the 25th anniversary of the fire. I will give more details about this service later in this column.

The fire received much attention immediately after it happened. Money was collected for survivors, the Red Cross was on the spot and a book on the tragedy quickly appeared. Monuments were erected and in the ensuing years, memorial services were held and articles appeared periodically in the local newspapers. As time passed the tragedy received less attention. Survivors picked up the pieces of their broken families, community, and lives and moved forward.

Beginning in the 1990s, as many of the survivors began to pass away, the tragedy received more attention. The Kershaw County Historical Society produced a publication and held two programs at which survivors were present and recounted their stories of that fateful night.

When Donald led a movement which secured funding for refurbishing the school monument, landscaping the site, restoring the fence and gates and refurbishing the monument at Beulah United Methodist Church where most of the 77 were buried in a mass grave, there can be no question as to how much this matter was in Don’s consciousness. Right before his death, Don was in discussions with Dale Hudson about publishing Dale’s book he was writing on this great tragedy.

In my book, Partners with the Sun, South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940, published in 2001, I reproduced two photographs of the aftermath of the fire taken the next day by Columbia photographer John A. Sergeant. One pictured the ruins of the school and the other portrayed the shrouded bodies awaiting placement in the large grave prepared to receive them.

In 2002, when the cloverleaf four miles north at the exit on I-20 at Highway 521 into Camden was dedicated and named for Donald Holland’s granddaddy, the subject of the fire was discussed and publicized again. Yet again was the matter publicized when the county historical society produced a program on John C. West’s career as senator, lieutenant governor, governor and ambassador to Saudi Arabia; and later dedicated a historical marker to him located between his ancestral home and his family home of a later time. John lost his father in the Cleveland School fire which occurred when he was about nine months old.

In May and June of 2010, the Camden Chronicle-Independent published two columns I wrote about the fire and the last two known survivors, Harold (Mac) McCaskill and Pearl Godwin Tiller. Unfortunately, Pearl passed away about a year ago, leaving Mac as the last known survivor. In 2011, the new Kershaw County History devoted more than two pages to the Cleveland School Fire tragedy.

This tragedy was brought to my mind again about two weeks ago when I discovered the program for the 25th anniversary memorial service of the fire I attended with Donald Holland in 1948, 65 years ago. I did not remember saving it. The program, on two mimeographed sheets, listed special music, scripture readings, two hymns and a memorial address by Rev. Henry Collins.

On May 2, 2013, the Kershaw County Historical Society received a telephone call from Rachel Miles of Rembert enquiring if the society planned any program or would do anything to memorialize the 90th anniversary of the fire and to recognize her Uncle Mac McCaskill as the last known survivor. May this sketchy recap and review of some of the past recognitions and memorials of the Cleveland School fire tragedy do what Rachel has requested.

In good conscience, I could not avoid writing this column. Over the years, this tragedy has been too much a part of my past and that of many close friends to let this anniversary go by without comment and recognition. We salute you, Mac, and wish you the very best at this time in history.

(Harvey S. Teal is the author of the Kershaw County Historical Society’s regular monthly column, which will appear next June 3. He is an occasional contributing columnist to the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C.)

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