By Barney Blakeney
I should have known she was up to something when I got the call. Toby Smith and I have been friends a long time. I’ve found her to be a busy and progressive person. She’s friendly and personable, but she’s always been about business.
We stay in touch, but if she calls me, she’s got an agenda. I was a little surprised when she said she’s running for the S.C First District Congressional seat in the next election.
I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Her announcement was unexpected. In 2015 Toby became the first Black woman to run for mayor of the City of Charleston. That also came unexpectedly. This run at the 1st Dist. seat will be another first – she’ll become the first Black woman to run for that office as well. Going in first seems to be a thing for Toby.
When I met her, Toby was working for Charleston County School District as the public relations officer, another first. I would learn that her being there would make a real difference. CCSD never has been big on transparency, but Toby would open doors. I always could count on Toby to be straight forward and forthcoming with information. That was the mid-90s during former Superintendent Sydney ‘Chip’ Zullinger’s administration. Zullinger was perhaps the school district’s most progressive superintendent. He surrounded himself with a competent and talented support staff.
Charleston County wasn’t ready for Zullinger. He was, by most accounts, ahead of his time. Toby says their relationship was a good one.
Zullinger lasted a couple of years. When he left, Toby wasn’t far behind him. I remember a friend who knew Toby from her West Ashley roots describe Toby as a smart woman. I’ve found that to be an accurate description. Smart people like Toby always are on the move, taking on new challenges.
A Charleston native who grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., she graduated from the University of South Carolina and started her career in the CIA working domestically and abroad. After eight years with the agency, she returned top Charleston and took the job with the school district. When she left, she went to work at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce as its first Black director of public affairs. At the chamber, Toby continued her way of making a difference.
Again, I found her taking unprecedented steps to give the Black press access that before had not been made available. Once while covering a press conference one young subordinate, thinking I was lost, asked me what I was trying to find. It didn’t dawn on her that I was a reporter covering the story. She had no concept of a Black reporter.
When Toby told the young woman I was a reporter, she fell apart upon realizing how subtle racism influences our perceptions. That incident and others reaffirmed for me how important was Toby’s presence.
Over the years Toby’s been busy. She’s done some radio as a talk show host and as a station manager. But I think her heart’s always been in giving and making a difference. I’d hear from her off and on.
It seemed she found a niche in non-profit work using her talents to help organizations raise money, training boards and helping them to develop strategic plans.
True to form, the next thing I knew Toby was doing the unexpected again – she went into the ministry. She was ordained in 2006 and for the past 12 years has been an associate minister at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
A few years ago I learned Toby was working as the Executive Director of Midland Park Community Ministries. Toby managed the daily operations of the food pantry and clothes closet. Under her leadership, services were expanded to Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties.
Toby also generated an additional $40,000 in grant dollars to expand programming and services. She previously had joined the staff of Origins (formerly Family Services Inc.), as a credit and housing counselor, was teaching financial literacy classes to first-time home-buyer and taught pre and post-bankruptcy and foreclosure prevention classes throughout the state.
As Gomer Pyle might say – surprise, surprise, surprise! Next I heard Toby was running for mayor. I think she just wants to help people. Proud of her heritage, she readily notes she is four generations from slavery on her mother’s side and became the first African-American woman to run for mayor of Charleston.
Since the campaign, Toby joined the Advisory Board of Jenkins Institute (formerly Jenkins Orphanage) and continued her work as a cultural and educational consultant for Project Okurase, which facilitates a yearly cultural immersion trip for high school students. We hooked up a few months ago in an attempt to bridge some generational gaps.
Toby asked me to be first to announce her candidacy as a 1st Dist. candidate. There are some heavy hitters on that race. She realizes the undertaking is a formidable task, “But I ain’t scared,” she said. I think her candidacy is historic. But beyond that, I’ve known Toby long enough to know she’s the kind of person who makes a difference whatever she does. I’m sure this will be the same.