Eugene Sanders was three weeks shy of his second birthday in January 1957 when he was hit by a car and killed.
His parents, the late Margaret and Sylvester Thompson Sr., lived with the family lived in a tiny concrete block house along S.C. 5 at the corner of what was then Cemetery Street, now called Soulsville Street. The house had no running water or indoor toilet.
The older Sanders children had crossed the street to fetch water. Their mother, eight months’ pregnant, was washing clothes in a pot. The father was at work at the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. plant, also called the Bleachery.
The youngest child, Eugene, darted into the street to try to follow his siblings.
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“We knew he died,” said brother Randy Thompson. “That’s all most of us knew.”
That all has changed now.
Sixty years later, the family researched and dug around in Rock Hill’s Barber Memorial Cemetery, where black people in the city were buried before integration, and they found the grave in what was the potter’s field for the poor in 1957.
Not only did they find the grave, they found it sits about 100 yards from where the family lived at the time in 1957. And a hundred yards from where Eugene died.
The only siblings alive then in 1957 were Mary Scruggs, the oldest who was 7, and Sylvester Sanders, who was 4 at the time. They were the ones who had gone to get the water when their brother was hit and died.
The driver of the car was questioned by police, but nothing ever came of it. There was a tiny item in what The Herald was called in 1957, The Evening Herald, about a “negro child” hit by a car.
Eugene was buried and the family had to move on as families did in those days.
“My mother had two other children and was pregnant with me – she had to provide for us,” Randy Thompson said. “My father was always working. There was no money then for funerals or markers.”
Randy was born a month later in 1957, then came Ricky and Cedric, Sherita and Angela and LaTonya. None of them ever met Eugene.
There was not even a picture of Eugene anywhere.
“My mother would get so sad on his birthday,” Sherita said.
The only marker was a tiny, bone-colored, city-provided stone no larger than a deck of playing cards, marked ‘A-4,’ that sat in a line of other infant and child burials.
The ground settled. The grass grew. Those old tiny stones burrowed into the earth over so many decades. The stones were just about lost, except in old city records.
The parents died and the siblings grew and had kids and grandchildren of their own. But the past was always with the family.
Sylvester, the oldest brother, looked at a grandson and saw his brother.
“That little boy looked like Gene 60 years ago,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester found his brother’s death certificate at the state health department and the news clippings and the city records of burial. The siblings then searched that cemetery down the street from where they had lived and where Eugene had died. For two full days, the siblings looked and poked and uncovered spots that time had swallowed.
Finally, they found the grave.
A lifetime of wondering had ended.
All these grown men and women who had lived so long had finally found their brother – sixty years after he died.
But finding the grave was not enough. The family ordered a headstone, picking out one with a baby on it. And this week, that stone was installed. The family held a service. They held hands, and a poem was read. They all prayed for a brother that two of them knew, and that the others never met.
They all said how they loved him, and how their mother and father did, too.
“What we have now is a story of his life,” Randy Thompson said. “It is not just a story that he died. Now we can share that he lived. We can share that we loved him. And we always will.”