By Patrice Smith
In 1987 after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project, Congress declared March as Women’s History Month, to recognize the achievements of women in history and in contemporary society.
Each year, the Tri-County Women’s Project, which supports the personal growth of Lowcountry women, also acknowledges the accomplishments of women who have made an impact in this area like Marjorie Amos-Frazier, who in 1974, became the first women elected to Charleston County Council. During her six year tenure, Amos-Frazier spearheaded efforts to provide better services for the needy. She was elected as a commissioner for the South Carolina Public Service Commission in 1980 which up until that time was served by all white, all male legislators. Amos-Frazier also chaired the Human Services Committee where she led negotiations between the county and MUSC for health care for the indigent. She was instrumental in creating substance abuse programs and established a senior center. Amos-Frazier was also vice chair of the Charleston Democratic Party and is quoted as saying “I hope that I have been fair to all concerned.” In 1993, a section of Interstate 26 was named in her honor. Marjorie Amos-Frazier died in 2010.
Septima Poinsett Clark qualified as a teacher but couldn’t teach in the Charleston County School district because it didn’t hire African Americans back in 1916. She instead became an instructor on Johns Island. Clark returned to Charleston in 1919, taught at Avery Institute and joined the NAACP. Clark gathered hundreds of signatures ‘in favor of change’ that led to the district hiring African Americans. Years later in 1945 Clark worked alongside attorney Thurgood Marshall on a case that sought equal pay for black and white teachers.
Marshall won the case and Clark saw her salary increase threefold. Clark continued to teach in Charleston County until a 1956 state law made it illegal for public employees to belong to civil rights groups. Clark refused to relinquish her NAACP membership and was fired. She had to leave South Carolina to find a school that supported integration. Clark went to Tennessee and taught at the Tennessee Highland School where she headed up the Highland Citizenship School program. This program taught regular citizens how to teach basic literacy skills to the community. This in turn allowed the residents to register to vote. In 1961 the Southern Christian leadership Conference took over the education project. Clark joined SCLC and helped create 800 Citizenship Schools.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter honored Clark with the Living Legacy Award. In 1987, Clark’s second autobiography won an American Book Award. Clark died in 1987 at 89.
Harriet White Wilder is a product of Charleston’s east side, a place she says didn’t have any real role models. “My parents instilled in me to believe in myself but to always give God the glory.” Wilder was educated in the totally segregated school system. She attended Archer Elementary, Burke High School and South Carolina State College. Wilder spent her professional life in education both teaching and consulting for the Charleston County School district. It was while working in the district that she noticed a deficient with the African American students that didn’t sit well with her. So Wilder staged an ‘intervention’ and opened Hope’s Treasure Chest (named after her daughter) in 1983. The child development center took children age 2 through kindergarten and taught them the skills that would make them ready for the first grade. Wanting her students to take what they learned from her with them, Wilder along with Martelle Robinson opened the area’s first Black public school in 1995 that they named Charleston Progressive Academy. Located in the Courtney building, the school continues to grow and Wilder says it graduates ‘productive members of society’. Wilder is retired and lives on James Island.
Martelle Waites Robinson was passionate about education. She taught in the Columbia and Charleston, SC public school systems and also served as a Reading Coordinator. Her dream was to establish a learning center after retirement. Robinson’s dream came true in 1984 when she opened the Personalized Learning Center and Mother Goose School of Readiness. Just like Harriet White Wilder, Robinson recognized a deficit among black students and wanted to make sure they had what they needed to be successful. She co-founded Charleston Progressive Academy with Wilder and volunteered as the school administrator from 1995 to 1999. She donated her salary to fund special programs at the school. Robinson passed away unexpectedly in 2000 leaving a void in the hearts of family, friends and the community where she was well respected.
Senator Margie Bright Matthews became the second woman to currently serve in the South Carolina senate in 2015 after winning a special election to fill the District 45 seat vacated by Senator Clemente Pinckney, who was one of the Emanuel Nine. Matthews remembers Pinckney as ‘her friend’. Matthews is the second African American female to hold a seat in the state senate. Appearing before panels to secure funding for the Jasper Ocean Terminal, Senator Matthews helped secure $56 million in funding to construct Exit 3 that would lead to the terminal. The exit will be named in honor of Senator Pinckney. Matthews has championed numerous causes since joining senate. She sponsored bills to increase the age that a juvenile can be charged as an adult in her effort to stop the ‘school to prison pipeline’. Matthews was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 1989 and joined the law firm of McLeod, Fraser & Cone where she handled civil defense matter. In 1992, Matthews formed her own practice. For the past 27 years the Bright Matthews Law Firm has represented the people of the Lowcountry in personal injury, workers’ compensation and criminal defense cases.