Benjamin Rowland / by Michael Falco


Who is Benjamin Rowland?

Benjamin Rowland grew up a twenty-minute drive from Camden, South Carolina. When he was a child, his parents opened a bakery in Camden, where he spent a lot of time hanging out. He attended a boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina, on scholarship and later went on to Duke for undergraduate and Catholic University of America for law school. Following law school, he moved to Cheyenne to clerk for Federal Judge Nancy Freudenthal, after which he moved to the office of the city attorney. In Cheyenne, he also met his partner, Amy Spieker, who was also interviewed for this project.  

Excerpt from interview with Benjamin Rowland by Whitney Dow, 2018

Q: Tell me about the community where the bakery is located.

Rowland: [00:17:14] Camden, South Carolina.

Q: So that’s the same place you grew up in, kind of rural—

Rowland: [00:17:19] Yes. Yes.

Q: —but describe to me that kind of area where the bakery is and stuff.

Rowland: [00:17:24] Sure. So Camden—yes, we grew up outside of Camden, about a twenty- minute drive in a just plain old rural area, no neighbors, that sort of thing, just sort of woods. Camden is—I don’t know. There might be 15,000 people in Camden. It might be a little bit bigger than that now. It is, I think, the county seat of Kershaw County. I don’t know. There’s a small downtown area that’s mainly one intersection of Dekalb [Street] and Broad Street. That’s basically—yes, I mean, there are—so there’s one main intersection, and my parents’ bakery is sort of near that intersection where there’s a post office, you know, a few other businesses that have been there for a while. At this point, I think it’s almost, like, a point of pride that their little bakery has been there for twenty-five years because there aren’t, I think, many other businesses that have been there that long. There’s a little jewelry shop across the street that has been there, I think, for—I don’t know—almost a hundred years. So it seems like they’ve got them beat. They’ve got my parents beat by quite a few years. So it’s a fairly small town. The downtown is—I don’t know—yes, maybe a few blocks by a few blocks, but the heart of it is really sort of one intersection. I would sort of characterize the main sort of strip as being on—it’s US 521, which is the same thing as Broad Street. It runs north to south, basically, through town between Dekalb and Rutledge Streets. You know, there are just a few little restaurants, some antique stores. That’s a big thing in Camden, you know. They’ve planted some trees downtown to try to gussy it up a little bit, and now they’ve got some sort of year-round Christmas lights going on like a lot of towns are doing to try to give it a little sort of livelihood after hours. That’s downtown. Sort of residentially, it’s a little bit divided, I suppose. There’s, as with most towns, sort of a pretty sort of old town, historic part of Camden, which is much more kind of higher- income, and then lower-income, you know, sort of areas. I think in Camden, as, I’m sure, in a lot of Southern towns, those most often correspond or are strongly correlated to sort of the white town and black town in some ways. I mean, even as a little kid I was pretty aware of sort of what that sort of breakdown was like in town.

Q: Well, how were you aware? Tell me about that. How were you thinking about it?

Rowland: [00:20:40] I mean, I was aware in the sense that you could see it. You go to one part of town, and it’s, you know, very, very white, [laughs] nothing but white people, and well- manicured lawns, and trees, and hedges, and all those sorts of things. And you don’t have to be a genius, you know, or even that observant. A kid can pick up on it. And then, yes, on the other side of town, again, you see it. No white people live there, and a lot of poor African Americans, and, like I said, it’s like that in a lot of—or it seemed like it was like that in many of those small Southern towns, I think. I don’t know. Maybe it was just a remnant, in a lot of ways, of that— sort of the historical legacy of the South, right? It’s still, I think, deeply divided that way, so it’s—I don’t know. It’s something that I was aware of even as a little kiddo, and I’m sure it’s still to some extent like that now.

Q: Did you spend any time in the African American part of town?

Rowland: [00:22:06] I can’t say that I spent a whole lot of time there. I remember going, for example, to visit—my dad was friends with this—I don’t even remember his full name. I always knew him as Old Joe. He was an elderly black man that lived—I don’t know—maybe a half-mile from the bakery, sort of in a less-well-off part of town. And he had some mental issues, some mental difficulties, and my—I remember—I don’t remember who it was that explained it to me, but he had apparently—this man [phonetic] had been hit or run over by a car in the ‘50s or ‘60s, but the car didn’t stop, and he had been dragged a substantial distance. Anyway, he had some, I guess, resulting mental issues. Apparently, Joe was deeply skeptical of white people, I guess, because the person that—I don’t know—did this to him was white, and he did not forget that. And I don’t remember the—I don’t know the circumstances. This is all, you know, information sort of passed on, but, anyway, Joe, a kind soul, some real mental difficulties, deeply, deeply poor. Dad and I would sometimes go over to his house and bring him, you know, some baked goods, bread, things like that, just to help out a little bit. Yes, we went into his house a couple of times, and it was genuinely sad, you know, just very, very dark. I don’t remember if he had electricity or not, but he had a little single gas burner, and it was just very sad.

Q: And how did your dad get to know him? Was he just known in the town or—

Rowland: [00:24:50] He would come hang out in front of the bakery, and eventually my dad would walk out and be like, “Hi, can I help you?” I don’t know. He just started talking to him, and eventually—I don’t know—they got to know each other, and even then, even later, he would not come into the bakery. He would stand out front until my dad would recognize him, see him out front, and then he would walk out front and say, “Hi, Joe.” And I think we gave him a bike to help him get around, and I think it seemed like it took some time for the two of them to—or for Joe to trust, you know, in some ways. I don’t know. That’s what it seemed like, but eventually he was a—yes, he was around, and we tried to help him out, whenever we could.

Interview Transcript