By Barney Blakeney
As we celebrate Women History Month in March, many recognize Barbara Gathers among the women in our community who have made history and continue doing so. A Burke High School graduate who grew up in the west side peninsula Charleston ‘Back The Green’ neighborhood, Gathers has distinguished herself culturally and professionally in the local community. She is a pioneer in the field of equal employment opportunities and as a small business owner.
Among her most obvious characteristics is her modesty. Asked if she should be considered a figure in women’s history, she exclaimed, “I don’t know why!” She immediately credits her many accomplishments to her grandmother, the late Corine Wilson Gathers, a domestic worker who with her husband Abednigo provided a college education to their children and Gathers. With pride, love and respect she says of her grandmother, “She only went to the fifth grade, but she had a Ph.D. in life.”
Gathers said among the lessons her grandmother taught her were to be confident and to prepare oneself. A capable student, Gathers aspired to become a social worker. She got a degree in Sociology from North Carolina A&T University, but landed a job as a teacher upon graduating. Teaching was satisfying work, but it wasn’t what she set out to do. So when her teaching career ended with the closure of W. Gresham Meggett after its 1970 graduating class left, Gathers took a job as a counselor with the S.C. Commission for Farm Workers. She did that four years and describes it as one of her best jobs because it gave her the opportunity to help guide students into college.
A trip to graduate school followed by several years working for the Department of Social Services led the self-described occupational rolling stone to the Dept. of the Army as an equal employment opportunity officer. It was work she’d do 22 years, serving different times for different federal agencies as manager and as a specialist. Her jobs took her to offices in Charleston, Columbia and Japan. All the while she aspired to become a business owner. While still working for the federal government she took courses and attended business seminars in preparation for opening her own business.
Among her passions has been a love for art and literature. Going into business, for her, meant art and literature. For 12 years beginning in 1986, she was one of only a few Black entrepreneurs owning stores in downtown Charleston south of Calhoun Street. Unique Ideas Gifts and Accessories on Meeting Street and later on King Street offered a venue for African American art sales and gifts. But her store was more than a retail outlet. It also was a venue where Gathers presented local and national artists to the public. The store was a base for book signings, art exhibits and literary recitals. She was among the first locally to showcase the artwork of Jonathan Green.
Gathers said surviving a business environment that wantonly discriminated against Black entrepreneurs was difficult. Eventually she closed the store. But she’s a survivor. She’s survived a heart transplant and breast cancer. Ten years ago Gathers founded The Tri-County Women’s Resource Project, a non-profit organization promoting health, economic, civic, social and spiritual awareness among women. And since 2009 she has headed Barbara Gathers and Associates. In 2015 she published her memoir, “From Back Da Green-Stories From The Heart”.
Gathers says she unsure what she’ll do next. “I’ll go wherever God leads me and do whatever that little voice I recognize as His tells me to do,” she says. She is certain however, “You can’t just jump out there. You’ve got to prepare.”