By Barney Blakeney
I recently had the distinct honor of participating in a panel discussion on racial disparities in Charleston County as part of a Black History Month program put on by the Town of Mount Pleasant Historical Commission at Friendship AME Church in Mount Pleasant. But the distinction was bittersweet.
Being asked to participate in such events always humbles me. You see, I’m the barbeque man’s son. My father supported us cooking and selling barbeque. It was tough going, but he made our lives wonderful. The first home I recall was Cooper River Court public housing complex on the peninsula Eastside. In the projects we had running hot and cold water. When we moved out, I had to cut wood for the stove on which we heated water.
My family’s not wealthy, but I never remember being hungry and mama kept us clean. My parents also kept our butts in school – Sunday school, vacation bible school, summer school – if the name had the word school in it, my parents made sure we went there. And although my dad said he only had a fourth grade education, he was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. So when I’m asked to participate in stuff that seems professional and intellectual, I view it as testament to where I came from – not of my own accord, mind you, but because of my family’s insistence that us kids become the best we could be.
I was enthused to participate in the historical commission’s program. My co-panelists were Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission and Dr. Patricia Lesesne, executive director of The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. Don’t ask me how I got on a program with those two people (and fellas, they fine as he..!). Those women are academically and professionally superior individuals. I mean, I ain’t no slouch, but those sisters have brains with which most people can’t compete. And they regular people! They smart, but they ain’t uppity.
We were there to talk about Avery’s 2017 report “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, S.C. 2000-2015.” The program was the first of four Black History Month events being sponsored by the commission. I think there’s something to be said for the Town of Mount Pleasant sponsoring Black History Month events.
The town’s population is more than 90 percent white. I doubt it would suffer any substantial backlash if it ignored Black History Month. Black folks talk a good game about what they’d do if so and so doesn’t do such and such, but they rarely back that talk up. Black folks rarely make people suffer consequences for their trespasses against us. Our leadership thinks holding press conferences forces accountability. Them folks are happy to give you those 60 seconds of TV time because they know your challenge will go no further. They count on that and we don’t disappoint them.
We had a pretty good time at the program. About 50 or so people attended ranging in age from teens to older seniors. About half the crowd was white. I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been told not to expect a large crowd. Sadly, most of the audience was older people who know the history of racial disparities in our community. Our young people are packing the clubs, but we can’t seem to get them to the events that so significantly impact their lives. If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. We can’t blame the white man for everything. At some point we must take responsibility for seeking out the information then acting upon it to improve our lot.
I can’t remember all that was said. The discussion really was spontaneous. We gave some opening remarks and the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Coordinator Daron Calhoun asked us to expound on some topics from the disparities report. Among them were economics and education.
One of the things I find most striking about the information contained in the report is that much of what was outlined actually hasn’t changed since 1940. Many of us already have lived through that Black History, but it continues today as our children and grandchildren’s current history. Lesesne said throughout Black History in America literacy and education has been a pathway to freedom. My father read on a fourth grade level. Today I read and write for a living. But also today, far too many Black students graduate high school reading on a fourth grade level. Well, so much for free your mind and your butt shall follow.
Over the past few months I’ve been participating in the Shared Future Project. About 30 individuals representing a cross section of our community met in intense sessions that usually stretched into the nights. The purpose was to help us learn collaborative skills we could use to develop concepts of what Charleston County School District is now and could become by 2035. We presented those concepts to the public last week.
The history of public education in Charleston County, which is an integral part of Black History in Charleston County, is a sordid one bittersweet with the taste of many successes and many failures. The Avery report notes that among residents 25 years and older, in 2008 about 6,000 Blacks had attained a Bachelor’s Degree or higher compared to about 74,000 white residents who have attained a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.
Hodges made some significant remarks about economics. She noted that the median income for Blacks in Charleston County is less than half that of whites in the county and that the unemployment rate for Blacks in the county doubles that of whites. She also noted that although the local economy includes about $8 billion in dollars from tourism, Black businesses get less than one percent of that money. People come here from all over the world to eat shrimp and grits which Black folks created, but they ain’t buying ‘em from us.
Sitting between those two brilliant women who so profoundly detailed the ongoing reality of Black History in our community left me with bittersweet mixed emotions. I have come a long way from chopping wood in the backyard on Accabee Road and on Drake Street. But obviously we haven’t come far enough. Black History still is our current history.