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Ashleyville Pier Honors Community Icon Leonard Higgins
Published:
6/24/2016 2:38:48 PM


The late Leonard Higgins (right)
 
By Barney Blakeney


Offering a stunning view across the Ashley River, the new 425-foot-long Higgins Pier that extends from the end of the West Ashley Bikeway into the waterway bears the name of one of the community’s most prominent figures. Leonard Higgins lived his entire life in the West Ashley predominantly black community of Ashleyville. In many ways the pier named in his honor is as much an extension of the community as was his life.

Higgins was born in 1932 at a time when Jim Crow laws were set in place to disenfranchise black people. But he was a product of a culture of self-awareness and accomplishment. The Maryville/Ashleyville community nurtured him. It was a community that was one of the state’s first black municipalities, a community where former slaves owned property and conducted businesses, a town named for landowner and businesswoman Mary Matthews Just. It was a town where Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. founder Ernest E. Just also was born and raised.

It was that heritage which led Higgins to become a stalwart advocate for Maryville/Ashleyville and black people in general. An educated man, he graduated from Burke School and Allen University and later earned a Masters degree from Atlanta University. Higgins believed personal and collective success was rooted in education.

Like many of the successful black men of his time, he used his career in teaching as an example to serve and motivate others. He taught at segregated black public schools including St. Andrews Elementary and Wallace schools. Eventually he became principal at St. John's High School. Throughout those years, he raised his family in the Ashleyville community he loved.

Higgins simply could have sat back and enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle his profession afforded him, but by nature he was an activist and leader. Along with others in the community like John Carr Sr., Clemon Richardson and James Smalls, Higgins took his turn as Maryville/Ashleyville Neighborhood Association president and pushed for the community’s annexation into the City of Charleston in the late 1970s. While he retired from public education, he never retired from public service.

In the late 1990s the former C&C Video and News store at the corner of Sycamore Avenue and St. Andrews Boulevard, was located at one of the two entrances to the Ashleyville community. The bookstore was at the center of controversy in the community many years as residents protested the location of a pornography business in their residential neighborhood. Led by Higgins, after a prolonged community protest, it was forced to close. He was the neighborhood association president at the time of his death in 2010. Higgins Pier was being planned at that time.

S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who then represented the Maryville/Ashleyville community on city council, said it is fitting that the pier dedicated last week bears Higghins’ name. “He was an icon in that community. An honest, humble man who everybody looked up to. Mr. Higgins was proud of Ashleyville and wanted everyone to know its history,” Gilliard said.

Like many historically black communities, Maryville/Ashleyville is confronting transitional gentrification. Its proximity to downtown Charleston and off-the-beaten-path waterfront characteristics make it a prime candidate for redevelopment. Gilliard said that’s where Higgins life and influence still may impact the community.

“Mr. Higgins believed in property ownership. We know the pier also will bring more diversity. Traditional residents will have to hold on to their properties,” Gilliard said. “Mr. Higgins believed that was the way to control and empower your community.”
 

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