When he was a child, James O’Neal would ride past the Charles Hammond House with his parents on their way to Second Providence Baptist Church in North Augusta.
They often talked about the history the house had seen in its 200-plus years, and told him he had ancestors who had lived nearby.
Now, O’Neal owns the house. He bought it the week of the Fourth of July for $139,500, about $100,000 less than the asking price of $240,000.
“The plan is to restore the house as best as possible to its original state with historic and environmentally friendly renovations,” he said.
Besides that, he’s not really sure yet what he’ll do with it. But he wants to hear what the community thinks, and hopes that during the renovation, the house itself will weigh in.
“I’m going to ask that house, ‘Show me what you want to be,’ and let people enjoy that. Bring people together and just have a jewel,” said O’Neal, who restored and sold houses in Atlanta for 18 years. “I love that process and look forward to this house figuring out what it wants to be.”
O’Neal won’t live in it.
“I would like for it to be used as a resource for the public to experience what it was like to be in the house during the birth of our nation. If that’s in the form of hospitality housing, an event center or a showcase facility for period items, I’m open to what makes sense for the communities of North Augusta, Aiken and Augusta that will allow it to add value as a significant historic asset, and still remain financially sustainable,” he said.
Last weekend, O’Neal and his father, Robert O’Neal, had a crew of contractors come to the house and begin figuring out what needs to be done — first to stabilize it, then to return it to its past glory.
The house is structurally sound, but the interior was cut up into apartments back in the late 1960s. Some fine details — like ornamentation around six-panel doors, heart-pine floors and hand-blown glass windows — remain, but the staircase that once must have graced its front hall is long gone.
“I haven’t worked with a house of this age, but I have worked with houses in worse condition,” O’Neal said. “I’m sure it’ll be costly, but still, it’s so doable. Wouldn’t it be great to have this house so people can rent it out and experience what it was like to live then?”
The Morehouse graduate came home from Atlanta to take over his father’s insurance agency in south Augusta, something that was always part of his plan. He grew up in Augusta, graduating from A.R. Johnson .
When he came back and realized the Hammond House was up for sale, his future and past came together in a way that inspired him to try to find out if the old family stories were true.
“I was trying to get an understanding of how close were my ancestors might have been to this house,” O’Neal said.
His research showed that his third-great-grandparents — Toney and Chaney Hawkins — had indeed lived in North Augusta, according to the 1880 census, in the Schultz Hill area.
Both were born around 1812, but where they were between then and 1880 remains a mystery.
Researching African-American genealogy is difficult because of slavery. Enslaved people generally didn’t have last names and weren’t counted in the census the same way Caucasians were. If they were listed at all, it might have been in “Slave Schedules” that accompanied the records of their owners. Those lists gave only physical descriptions, no names.
There is, however, a listing of slaves in old Edgefield County — which included what is now Aiken County — that is considered authoritative enough to be included in the offerings of Ancestry.com.
The compilation of more than 28,000 entries was put together by Gloria Ramsey Lucas, an African-American woman who was frustrated in her own genealogy search by the lack of such records. She spent six years building it.
Unfortunately for O’Neal, Toney and Chaney Hawkins don’t show up in it with a connection to Charles Hammond.
“What are we going to do now? There are lessons to be learned. What can we do now to make things better for everybody?” O’Neal said. “God has given us the intellect and creativity to make things better. Bringing back a house is one way I like to express my creativity.”