Liz Farrell

Farrell: 'I am Cyrus Garvey,' former slave tells us from grave

Imagine just for a moment, long after we die and when not a person alive can say they knew us, that the mere mention of our names could temporarily resurrect us, make us briefly alive again.

Not physically, of course, but spiritually.

And perhaps then it is only as fleeting as the glow of a firefly.

The name is said.

The soul alights.

And then it goes dark until the next time someone thinks of us.

I suppose it's silly to see the afterlife in this way, but for a long time I have considered its possibility and, sometimes, when visiting a cemetery, have said the names on gravestones in a whisper, just so the person's name could be heard aloud at least one more time.

I thought about this recently when talking to Melanie Beal Marks, the genealogist who researched the history of Cyrus Garvin, the former slave who built the now-ramshackle home on Wharf Street in Old Town Bluffton.

Marks is a curious person, by both definitions.

She's unusual in that she can recite by memory several generations of strangers' family trees -- and of her own family, naturally.

When she does so, it gets biblical.

"His father was Timothy, whose father was Simon, whose father was ..."

She's also curious in that she's terribly eager to know more about whatever it is she's researching.

One question leads to another leads to another, and before she knows it, she's buying a $10 postcard on eBay just so she can find out the identity of the seller and ask him about a family Bible he recently sold to someone else.

It had some information in it that could be useful to her.

(When she found that the seller had taken photos of the exact thing she needed, she went, in her own words, bananas.)

Marks, who lives part-time in Palmetto Bluff, is the founder of and principal researcher at CT House Histories in Connecticut, where she works to uncover the stories behind historical homes.

She takes on projects in the same way a detective might -- or a biographer, or a journalist -- following documents, tracing newspaper clippings and conducting interviews until she has a timeline, a map and a narrative.

"It's like reading a good book," she said of piecing together the histories of those who lived in this home or that.

Her research on the Garvin House for the Town of Bluffton, which is working to restore it, was done for free. She presented the results -- in neat binders that appeared to be 10 feet thick with documents -- last week, after six months of digging.

Her interest in the project began the traditional way -- when her husband, Eugene, signed her up for it without talking to her first.

"He was curious about Garvin House," she laughed. "He wanted to help (the town). So he volunteered my services."

Rather quickly, she was able to find documents the town had not yet discovered about Cyrus Garvin.

From there, she wanted to know more.

She traced the histories of Garvin's owners. She found documentation in censuses, directories, even a physician's notebook. She conducted personal interviews with well-known Bluffton residents Ruth Brown and Jacob Martin. She worked with Carolyn Coppola, executive director of Celebrate Bluffton, and Jeff Fulgham, director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society.

It's a fascinating and emotional journey back in time, the tale of a former slave building his new life from the ground up on the banks of what would become his own land with neighbors who fought against this very thing.

"You never know what stories you'll find," she said of her work in general. "(My clients) just get blown away."

One fact that blew me away is that Cyrus Garvin is quite likely not Cyrus Garvin.

Marks found a deed from Nov. 12, 1878, in which Cyrus transferred land to trustees of St. Matthews Church. The land had been deeded to him by Dr. Paul Pritchard in February of that year.

In the November deed, Cyrus sought to correct a mistake from the February deed.

Maybe it was a typo. Maybe it was a misunderstanding.

It doesn't matter.

He wanted it fixed.

"My name," he said, "is made Cyrus Garvin (on the deed) ... I said Cyrus Garvey ... Now therefore, I Cyrus Garvey agent as aforesaid do hereby convey to the said trustees ..."

He said Cyrus Garvey.

"He's telling you," Marks said. "He's telling you in that deed. I am Cyrus Garvey. Not Cyrus Garvin."

Nearly 140 years later, he has been heard.

His name has been said.

Follow columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell at twitter.com/elizfarrell and facebook.com/elizfarrell.

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