Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race


This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery.

Peering at my driver’s license, they noticed that I was from a town about 20 miles south of the church, and asked why I was in Newberry County. I explained, politely, that I had read old newspaper reports that had said the individual I was searching for had been buried in Helena Church and according to information I’d found on the Internet, I thought that the church may have once been at this location.

They explained to me that Brown Chapel only had graves of black parishioners, but suggested I try another site about a mile away.

I thanked them and as one of the pair handed me back my identification, she replied, “Well, we can’t be too cautious.”

The comment was an apparent reference to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston earlier this month by a 21-year-old white nut job that claimed nine black lives.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I thanked them again and returned to my car. Needless to say, I found the experience unsettling.

A quick description of yours truly: Bespectacled white male, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 50 years old. I was wearing a t-shirt, nice shorts, dockers shoes and a Santa Clara University baseball cap. I can’t speak for others, but I hardly see myself as a threatening individual.

Were the two women out of line questioning me because I was white? Some would say yes.

Would they have asked for my ID if I were a black male; were they insinuating that given my color I needed to be watched more closely; do they believe there is increased chance of similar white attacks on black churches occurring?

I don’t know. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions.

There is a segment of society that decries the fact that, according to them, the most segregated hour in America takes place on Sunday morning, during church services. Personally, I’ve always felt that folks should go to whatever church they want, with the understanding that no one should be turned away from a house of worship because of something as arbitrary as skin color or sexual preference.

That said, after Saturday’s experience, I believe my presence during an AME or CME church service would be met with trepidation. But could I blame a congregation for being anxious if one day, less than a month after the events at Emanuel, an unfamiliar white male showed up at a black church service?

Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?

As I thought about the encounter at Brown Chapel, I realized that both of the women I had talked with were likely born in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They grew up in the segregated South and had to deal with all that went along with that world.

I, on the other hand, was born in California, on the day after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve lived in the South for many years, but no matter how much I read and how many people I talk with, I would never be able to fully understand the experiences these two older black women went through.

I have trouble understanding how they could be suspicious of me; they might have countered by stating that they had trouble understanding how I couldn’t understand why might be suspicious.

If, as it has been said, we are all products of our environment, and every person we meet, every new adventure we experience and every book we read reshapes us, even if ever so slightly, and makes us the unique beings we are, I can only hope that my manner and disposition left those two lades changed, and for the better.


Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses


My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

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School officials screw up; students pay price

school lunch

Officials at a private school in Northern California came under fire earlier this month after attempting to celebrate Black History Month by putting fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon on the lunch menu.

Students at Carondelet High School for Girls in Concord, Calif., wanted to come up with ways to observe the occasion during a lunchtime celebration Friday, but it appears that school officials devised the menu choices as their idea of recognizing Black History Month.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t go over well with many parents.

As a result, the items were taken off the menu, a letter of apology was sent home to parents and, of course, the school principal announced the requisite diversity assembly for students and faculty, according to the Associated Press.

My question: If the students didn’t come up with the idea of putting fried chicken, cornbread and watermelon on the menu, why should they have to sit through a diversity assembly?

I’m certain that students in California have been to more diversity assemblies by the time they reach high school then they can possibly remember.

Also, many folks – me included – have a keen hankering for all three of the above food items.

While I certainly wouldn’t be so culturally tone deaf as to attempt to pass them off as part of a Black History Month celebration, can students at Carondelet effectively kiss off any hopes of ever seeing fried chicken or cornbread on the menu again as school officials cower in the diversity corner for all eternity?

(HT: Waldo Lydecker’s Journal)

Buffalo soldier may finally get 1899 promotion

buffalo soldiers

It’s taken more than 110 years, but it looks as if a promotion recommended by John J. Pershing may finally go through.

Sgt. Paschal Conley, a so-called Buffalo Soldier because he served in a black US Army regiment, was recommended for promotion to second lieutenant by then-1st Lt. Pershing in 1899, call it “a fitting recognition of (Conley’s) long and honorable service.”

Conley served from 1879 until 1906 and fought in the Spanish-American War, according to the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, Pershing’s recommendation was never acted upon.

Conley’s descendants contacted Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner W. Clyde Marsh to rectify the situation, who then turned to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Sessions included a posthumous promotion for Conley in a Senate-approved defense bill.

Sessions asked the Army about “righting this wrong” and posthumously upgrading Conley’s rank, according to a spokesman for the senator. He was advised that legislation was required.

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A glimpse back at SC’s dissonant past

Conventional wisdom holds that the subject of race in the South is an inflexible, immutable issue, separate and distinct as regards blacks and whites. Just as importantly, it always has been, according to popular notion.

A couple of cursory examples:

  • Southern blacks today are overwhelmingly seen as being aligned with the Democratic Party, while a solid majority of Southern whites are Republicans; and
  • If you visit a so-called “black church” or a “white church” you’ll rarely find many people of the opposite race on hand.

But as selectively segregated as some institutions may appear to be today, there’s no doubt that race relations have thawed considerably in the region over the past 40 years. Obviously, Jim Crow didn’t do a whole lot to bring people of different backgrounds together prior to that, nor was it designed to.

However, one occasionally stumbles across a glimpse of a past that shows that not everything was as neatly delineated between the two races as today’s stereotypical view of yesteryear might have us believe.

If one looks hard enough, there are examples that show the South, like any part of the United States, was and is an infinitely more complex region than today’s television pundits and political opportunists would have us believe.

Case in point: Earlier this month while rambling through the South Carolina Upstate, I came across New Enoree Baptist Church, located in rural Newberry County, about six miles northeast of the town of Newberry.

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Waller, a true Mississippi rebel, dies at 85

A view held by those outside the South – and no small number within – is that white racism not only dominated life in the region until about roughly 30 years ago, but that it was a predominant factor in the governments which oversaw the states of the former Confederacy.

To be certain, with governors such as George Wallace of Alabama, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and Lester Maddox of Georgia, it’s easy to see how one might reach that conclusion.

But, as with all stereotypes, it would be wrong to imply that all Southern leaders up to and through the Civil Rights movement were unabashed bigots.

Case in point is William “Bill” Waller, the former governor of Mississippi, who died last week in Jackson, Miss., at age 85.

Waller, a Democrat, was elected in 1971 and used his time in office to appoint blacks to administrative boards and commissions for the first time in post-Reconstruction Mississippi, according to the New York Times.

He elevated three historically black colleges to university status, and he abolished the anti-integration Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger described as the “state segregationist spy agency.”

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Race game helps those keeping pot stirred


If, as attorney general Eric Holder said recently, the US is “a nation of cowards” when it comes to race relations, it’s because attempts at rational and logical discussion regarding the issue have been drowned out beneath the organized hysteria of race hustlers and others with something to gain by keeping the racial pot stirred.

No one in their right mind believes we don’t still have residual problems related to race that need to be addressed. But the belief that the US is still two countries segregated by skin color, even if unofficially, is ridiculous.

Walter Williams has an outstanding column here that looks at the fact that “just because some activity is not racially integrated does not mean that it is racially segregated.”

Williams adds: “The bottom line is that the civil rights struggle is over and it is won. At one time black Americans didn’t share the constitutional guarantees shared by whites; today we do.”

One often gets the impression that many liberal whites, black politicians and assorted race activists would gladly forsake the freedom of association aspect of our Constitution if it helped them achieve their political goals and, of course, put a few more dollars in their pockets.