By Delores Schweitzer for Island Eye News
Councilwoman Susan Middaugh couldn’t help but notice years of lively Sunday family gatherings at the house down the block from her on Raven Drive. She also couldn’t help but notice when things were quieter in the neighborhood earlier this year.
At 88, Rovena Jones Hazel, the last of ten children born on Sullivan’s Island of Allen Perry Jones and Maggie Pezant Jones, was not faring well.
It saddened Middaugh to learn from daughter-in-law Judy Hazel that Rovena passed away on April 28, 2015.
“Rovena was quiet and sweet, always willing to chat and smile,” recalls Middaugh. “I used to drive her to vote, and I knew something was wrong when no one answered the door back in January. I thought it would be nice for the town to recognize her family’s long history and Rovena’s achievements. I ran it by Pat O’Neil and Andy Benke, talked with her family, and roughed out the facts.”
Benke, town administrator and neighbor of the Jones family since the 1950s, worked on wording to come up with “A Resolution to Recognize and Honor the Life of Rovena Jones Hazel, a Cherished Citizen of the Town of Sullivan’s Island,” which was presented to Town Council for approval on May 19, 2015. The resolution detailed a remarkable woman descended from a remarkable family whose roots stretch back to the settlement of Sullivan’s Island in the early 1800s.
Daughters Andrea Hazel and Rovena Owen, son Allen Perry Hazel with wife Judy and daughter Maggie, and nieces Mildred Mikell and Katherine Wells were present for the proclamation. “It was so nice to be officially recognized by the Town,” Allen said.
His sister Andrea agreed, “I don’t think any family has received that kind of recognition before.” All three children said that their mother took great pride in her family and its legacy, and rightly so.
When Vincent Pierre, the son of a slave ship captain, fell in love with Betsy, a beautiful slave from West Africa, he spirited her away to marry and settle on Sullivan’s Island around 1809. While Betsy remained a slave, their children were born free. Betsy built a strong, self-sufficient family unit, keeping her sons and daughters close, lest they be mistaken for slaves quarantined on Sullivan’s Island. Six generations followed on the island, with the name changing from Pierre to Peter, and, through marriage, to Pezant and Jones.
Msgr. Lawrence McInerny of Stella Maris knew of the family as well-respected carpenters, engineers and dressmakers in the community. He came to know Rovena in later years when he brought her communion.
“We spoke of island life, common history and island people,” he said. “I think it’s great that Susan Middaugh thought to recognize those of Rovena’s generation born on the island. There are so few left, but they have a lot of local culture to share.”
Rovena’s early life certainly hearkened to a different time. As a child, she helped with the family livestock, delivered milk to neighbors with a goat cart, and walked the family cow up to the Mound every day to graze. She attended Laing Elementary School in Mt. Pleasant and Immaculate Conception School in Charleston. She married Walter Anthony Hazel, her high school sweetheart, and they lived downtown and raised a family of six children– Andrea, Rovena, Walter Jr., Kevin, Anna Marie, and Allen Perry. When Allen went off to school, Rovena took a job as a teacher’s aide to help with expenses.
To ensure opportunities for her children after she was widowed in 1978, she began taking distance education courses to get a teaching degree. In 1982, she received a BA from Shaw University and went on to teach at Memminger School, St. Patrick’s Catholic School, and as a Developmental Mathematics adjunct instructor at Trident Technical College.
Daughter Rovena recalled her as a loving mother and teacher, and daughter Andrea added, “She was a strong woman with a major emphasis on being positive. She always said, ‘If you’re going to be negative, go outside.’”
Son Allen remembered a different side, “She was a very, very patient, family oriented person.”
Never losing sight of the importance of family, Rovena returned to Sullivan’s Island in 1994 to care for her two older brothers, John and Arthur, in the family home built by her father in 1902. There, she provided a gathering place for Sunday dinners and impromptu family reunions. Relations from Mt. Pleasant to as far as New York, California and Washington State would drop in without warning and be welcomed.
Today, those reunions continue, and no doubt, the Peter-Pezant- Jones-Hazels will gather this Fourth of July to recall stories of the past as they look to the future. They remain committed to Rovena Jones Hazel’s priorities.
“She cherished this island and strived to keep the family traditions going,” says son Allen. “Even for those family members who never lived here, it is still home.