By Barney Blakeney
Rollins Edwards, one of Summerville’s most fierce and respected advocates for Blacks and civil rights, died December 22. He was 95. Edwards was born in Charleston March 5, 1922 to John and Annie Edwards, but just days old, his family moved to the predominantly Black Pidgeon Bay community of Summerville where he grew up and attended school. He attended Banks School and graduated from Alston School. His life was marked by struggle, overcoming adversity and service.
In 1939 at 17, Edwards joined the Army. He was among a group of Black soldiers sent to a secret camp in Louisiana on which the Army tested various gases, including mustard gas. The experiments left him impotent and marred for the rest of his life. The soldiers were ordered never to speak of the tests. The government eventually acknowledged the experiments in 1993. Edwards went on to serve with the Army’s 1329th Engineers in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. Until his death, Edwards proudly told stories about serving under General George Patton and Douglas MacArthur and helping to rescue Austria’s famed Lipizzaner show horses.
Edwards, a natural drummer, came home after the war, worked at a Summerville laundry business and got married to Lucille Clark. But an inner beat resonating inside him led him to Boston, Mass. to formally study music. He attended the Stanley Specter School of Music and the Berkley School of Music in Massachusetts and went on to play with some of the major musicians of the day and such big bands as The Count Basie Band, The Willis Jackson Band, The Buddy Johnson Band and Erskine Hawkins Band.
After twelve years on the road Edwards returned to Summerville and with his wife opened their own dry cleaners business. He and his late first wife established a successful business that picked up and delivered clothes to most of the rural area in Dorchester and Berkeley Counties for many years. After 39 years, he retired and closed the business in January 2000.
His business was the longest established Black owned and operated dry cleaners in Summerville.
Edwards was a natural leader and was just as fierce and visionary in his leadership as he was capable. He loved his community and having experienced firsthand the pain and devastation caused by racism, he launched into local politics in order to cause change. In 1976 he was elected to Dorchester County Council as its first Black member. He served five years, two as vice chair. He later served as a Town of Summerville Councilman from 1989-1997.
Aaron Brown, who succeeded Edwards as the town’s only Black representative, said Edwards joined the town council as part of Edwards’ effort to annex the predominantly Black Brownsville community into the town. Edwards throughout his tenure helped other predominantly Black communities get annexed into the town. That was perhaps Edwards’ most invaluable achievement on town council, said Brown who described Edwards as an affable, historical civil rights pioneer unafraid to challenge prevailing authority that minimized Black citizens. Ironically, Edwards’ beloved Pidgeon Bay community still remains outside the town’s jurisdiction.
Edwards was a member of the Baum’s Temple A.M.E. Zion Church of Summerville. He served many years as the senior choir director and on the church’s trustee board for 42 years. In 2003, Edwards became one of the founders of The Blessed Vision Ministry, Inc. of Summerville where he served as a trustee and assistant administrator.
A 33rd degree Mason, Edwards was active in Prince Hall Masons worldwide and was fraternally affiliated with New Eden Lodge #329 (since 1947) where he was Past Master Emeritus; African Lodge #459, Boston, Massachusetts; George A. McGuire Holy Royal Arch Masons #48; George Washington Carver Consistory #162 (since 1949); a member of the United Supreme Council; Member of the David L. Muckel 33º class of 1975; the South Carolina Council of Deliberation; and Pride of McDaniel Chapter #334 OES.
He served as the First Special District Deputy in the State of S.C., District Senior and Junior Warden. He also holds membership in the Phylasis Society and the Knights of Pythagoras. Under his leadership the Knights of Pythagoras rose from three chapters in the state to 42 chapters leading thousands of young men on their way to becoming quality contributing citizens and Prince Hall Masons. Edwards holds the title of Past Imperial Potentate for the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and Past Grand Master of the State of South Carolina for Prince Hall Masons with a membership of 20,000 plus men when he served.
Edwards is survived by his wife Juanita Duren Denson Edwards whom he married August 7, 1983. He is the step-father of Gina Denson, has four grandsons, one granddaughter and two great grandsons.