By Barney Blakeney
I learned some time ago Rural Missions, Inc. on Johns Island was closing. Last week I learned it closed May 31. A lot of people likely don’t understand the role Rural Missions, Inc. played in our community. Unfortunately, too many people don’t even know it existed! That’s a sad commentary.
I learned about Rural Missions when I started my first job as a reporter with The Charleston Chronicle. Being a first generation Charleston native, I had no concept about the Sea Islands. Once, as a child, our father took our family out riding on the Sea Islands one Sunday afternoon and we ended up in Hollywood. Us kids thought it was Hollywood, California. As an adolescent, kids from our Eastside neighborhood would catch ‘the farm bus’ during summer to go work on Sea Island farms. As a teenager, my brother from another mother and I would go over there chasing some girl he knew. By the time I got back from college, I’d gone to school with Sea Island natives.
Divide and conquer. For some of us downtown kids the Sea Islands were ‘the country’. Its residents were less cosmopolitan (as if we were cosmopolitan) – it was the old Willie Lynch theory in action – light versus dark, city versus rural, etc. Although I had grown up with rural Kingstree as my roots, I too fell victim to the Willie Lynch indoctrination. I was blessed. My parents and others gave me experiences that helped me get past that mentality.
Chronicle editor Jim French was good friends with the late Rev. Willis T. Goodwin, a United Methodist Church preacher whose consciousness was way above and beyond where many ministers, even today, can comprehend. In 1977, Goodwin was an itinerant preacher serving several Sea Islands churches. I was young, full of that ‘Black Power’ stuff and anxious to write about anything Black. Goodwin took it upon himself to show me what Black Power really was about.
He once took me on a tour of the Sea Islands visiting the homes of some of his congregants. I’m a poor kid who grew up in the Eastside’s Cooper River Courts housing complex, North Charleston’s Six Mile/Accabee and spent every summer of my youth in Williamsburg County tobacco fields. But I had never seen the poverty Goodwin showed me that day.
One old lady’s shack was covered with tar paper on the outside and old newspapers on the inside walls. I learned that newspaper material makes good insulation. Another home where the residents had attempted to brick in the front of the house had an opening where chickens freely roamed in and outside the house. I had read the Black Power books and embraced the ideology, but seeing the reality of where so many Black people remained in 1977 is something I’ve never forgotten. And guess what? A lot of us still are there!
It was that time Goodwin and French fed me constant leads to stories on Rural Missions and its efforts to improve the quality of life for many on the Sea Islands. Goodwin was among the primary movers and shakers who fought for the creation of Rural Missions. Established in 1969 Goodwin brought together various religious and secular entities through Rural Missions to assist the residents of the Sea Islands, both permanent and migrant. In those days most Hispanics came to Charleston during summers to work on the farms. Rural Missions provided a lot of services to that migrant community.
Rural Missions established programs to address the spiritual, social, educational, medical and housing needs of people on the Sea Islands. Original board member William ‘Bill’ Saunders says Rural Missions brought access to healthcare the Sea Island residents by establishing the first medical clinic in the area. The Sea Island Healthcare Corporation which served the five Sea Islands and communities in Colleton County grew from that first clinic, Saunders notes.
Saunders emphasizes that Sea Island Healthcare Corporation eventually became much more than a healthcare provider for residents who had no options for healthcare access beyond commuting to the peninsula. It also became a major employer for sea island residents. Forty-four-year Rural Missions Executive Director Linda Gadson notes Rural Missions itself employed as many as 125 people, mostly for its headstart and summer programs.
Today, the Sea Islands are a very different place than the community I saw in the late 1970s. Million-dollar homes have replaced tarpaper shacks. The farms where many of my classmates and neighbors picked tomatoes now are suburban subdivisions. Saunders said everything now going on in the area started with Rural Missions. But Gadson reminds us that for many sea island residents disparities exist – the problems haven’t disappeared, the needs still are there, she says.