“Cleveland School Fire” by Ann-Chaldwell Humphries

Camden, South Carolina
May 17, 1923 

Farm families packed the lyceum, no lap empty, 
everyone related. Evening’s play capped the morning’s
“Pomp and Circumstance.” Chickens plucked and quartered 

for frying, iris in buckets for vases, fresh strawberries, cream 
prepped for tomorrow’s last picnic on the grounds. Third act, 
an oil lantern plunged to the stage. Smoke hurled itself 

across the ceiling, kindled burlap curtains. Sonorous whoooosh, 
exhaled sparks like fireflies. Doe and fawn flashed white-tail flags 
as the understory pocketed them. Toddlers, teens, women flailed 

midair from second story windows. Rescuers climbed cars, 
pulleyed flagpole to porch. Two girls commanded the school bell, 
dispatched riders on dirt roads into New Moon darkness. 

In bloodstone light, leaves cindered like black lace. 
Longleaf pine bathed in fire. The panicked staggered 
to the narrow stairwell, exit door designed to swing in;

people stacked like cord wood. Walls surrendered; tin roof 
buckled. Women ripped dress hems into dressings for wounds, 
headdresses soaked in iris water—buckets mere thimbles. 

Crowds collided frantic for kin, skin blistered, throats parched, 
odors disorienting. Ashes canopied the forest, showering alms 
on every pond. In the end, seventy-seven perished

—most beyond recognition—buried in a mass grave 
behind Beulah Methodist Church. Entire generations gone.
Slash pines ceasing their slow lives, igniting national attention. 

Ann-Chadwell Humphries, Columbia, SC, was selected by Muddy Ford Press as second in their Laureate Series to publish her debut collection, An Eclipse and a Butcher. The title poem won an Emerging Artist Award by The Jasper Project. Ann is a frequent presenter at poetry events around SC such at Pat Conroy Literary Center. This year, she read with J. Drew Lanham on State House steps and Nikky Finney at All Good Books. She was twice a finalist for SC Academy of Authors and Poets. She is blind and reads and writes using assistive technology.Ann is a Speaker Scholar on Julia Mood Peterkin for SC Humanities.