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Posts Tagged ‘Charleston’

Dr. King’s Birthday

I was born in the Charleston, South Carolina Naval Hospital in 1960.  Although my mother remembers water fountains marked “Whites” and “Coloreds,” I never saw them.  My father was stationed at the Charleston Air Force Base, and we lived in a small mobile home (though we called it a trailer) along Dorchester Road in Charleston Heights.

My mother loved to shop downtown on King Street.  All the best stores lined King Street.  We often stopped first at Condon’s Department store, where the Easter Bunny roamed the shoe department in springtime.  Further south along King Street we visited one side of  Jack Krawcheck’s store for its fine women’s clothing (and little boys’ clothing up a narrow flight of circular stairs).  Mama tried on shoes at Bob Ellis and Ellison’s while I wondered at the similarity of the names.  Sometimes we also visited Berlin’s, or Evelyn Rubin, or other stores for ladies.  Mama could spend hours at Kerrison’s Department store looking at everything from carpet samples to stationery to clothing.   Mama couldn’t afford all the nice things she wanted, even with the Charge-A-Plate that store clerks put into the pnuematic tube, where it went to people in the accounting office who would later send Mama a bill.

I remember different highlights from my vantage point nearer the ground.  I remember that the seats in the Gloria Theater rocked.  They rocked!  I remember skipping noisily along the many temporary sidewalks that lined the King Street shopping district.  I read later in life that  debts from the Civil War prevented the city from rebuilding for about a hundred years.  Hence, the temporary sidewalks of my childhood.  I remember the narrow circular stairs at Krawcheck’s because I sat on them, resting my cheek against the cool stone wall while Mama carefully examined the tiny white or blue polo shirts laid out on the tables upstairs.  I remember wondering if we could really fry an egg on the sidewalks or if that was just something people liked to say.

I did not know that Mr. Krawcheck was Jewish, nor did I know that many businesses along King Street were owned by members of Charleston’s thriving Jewish community.  I did know that the shoppers along the northern part of King Street were always Black (and colorfully dressed,) while shoppers along lower King were white like me and much more somber than those we saw uptown.  The most somber of all were the cadets from The Citadel we saw occasionally.  I wouldn’t have noticed them myself except Mama nudged me whenever we saw them–they seemed to travel in pairs–and whispered, “There’s a husband for you, Audrey.”  I didn’t know then that Black people couldn’t walk into Kerrison’s or any other store south of Calhoun Street and try clothes on the way Mama could.

One of the only Black people we’d see while out shopping was the magnificent man who operated the elevators in Kerrison’s.  I realize now that a number of different magnificent men probably held this job, but each one did his work with the same charm and showmanship, opening the heavy gates and doors with an enthralling flourish, announcing the number and contents of the floors in an operatic, attention-getting voice.  If we stopped for lunch at Robertson’s Cafeteria, where the iced tea inexplicably came without sugar, we sometimes saw a Black person picking up the dirty dishes.

Sometimes we ventured into the area where Gullah women sat, patiently weaving sweetgrass into marvelous baskets.  They also sold bouquets of brilliant blue bachelor buttons.  Although Mama never bought a basket, I remember that as we walked along here we spoke in hushed, reverent tones, as if the weaving women deserved the same respect as the pastor who delivered our sermon on Sunday.  Today, a small basket runs well over $100.

Another craftsman of African descent made his mark on Charleston.  His name was Phillip Simmons, and he made wrought-iron gates.  The founders and early citizens of Charleston created beautiful architecture that people still admire two- and three-hundred years later.  (I have also read that the century of post-war poverty kept many of those buildings standing.  No one could afford to tear them down.)  And then they embellished the whole colorful picture with a dusting of graceful black lace.  Just google the words wrought-iron and Charleston and you’ll find picture after picture of these astonishing treasures.  Of course, at the time, I didn’t know anything about Mr. Simmons or his craft.  I knew that many of Mama’s friends displayed framed water-colors featuring his work and I remember finding it strange, once we moved away from Charleston, that houses in other towns didn’t have wrought iron columns and railings.

Most of the Black people of my acquaintance were people I observed from the car window as we drove into and away from downtown.  Black children did not attend my Kindergarten at the Baptist Church, and I don’t remember any Black faces from my primary-grade classrooms.  I remember seeing buildings much like the ones in the photo <http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/images/photodb/27-0943a.gif>, monochrome copies of the vivid antebellum houses downtown, festooned with drying laundry.  Along the balconies of these homes I saw countless children playing, sitting, or crying.  On very hot days, many of Charleston’s young children played outside wearing little more than their underwear, thin panties and a flimsy undershirt.  These children dressed likewise, regardless of the weather, and their underwear was much thinner than mine.  Older siblings and grandparents sat in lawn chairs, shelling peas or mending clothes, some holding smaller children.  Too many people, I was sure, to actually live inside the house.

Even as a young child, I knew some people faced less-than-ideal living situations.  My own father grew up in one of the worst slums of Glasgow, Scotland.  He lived in two rooms with nine others, and sometimes had to stay home from school because he had no clothes to wear.  I know now that thousands and thousands of Scottish families lived in the same slums.  When he turned fourteen, his mother took him to the great shipbuilder Harland and Wolff where he began his apprenticeship.  There he learned the trade that employed him until his death.

My strongest memory of Black families from those days is the most shameful.  From I-26, which sat close to the industrial area along the Ashley River, I regularly saw an apartment building lined with rickety balconies.  I searched high and low to find a picture of it, or one like it, but images of Charleston tend to show off its assets:  the charming boutiques, the lovely gardens, the pristine beaches.  That industrial area lived a brief life in Charleston’s three centuries of history.  The homes along the Battery have weathered most of that history, even with front-row seats for a famous Civil War battle .  Wrought-iron gates, apparently, last forever.  The apartment building is gone.  But it remains seared in my memory of Charleston.  It seemed to be mere yards from the chimneys–which belched thick white smoke day and night–of the industrial plants that once lined the Ashley River.

Today that industrial area–and the doomed apartment building–are long gone.   Google Maps shows new neighborhoods where I remember acres of gray industrial buildings shrouded in a hazy smog.  Some redevelopment halted in recent years, the victim, I imagine, of the same financial maladies that affected everyone in the fall of 2008.  A Post and Courier article says this: “Like much of the land along the Ashley River in the Neck Area, the sites were polluted with the products of phosphate fertilizer production, wood-treatment mills, and other heavy industry.  The Magnolia development site below a section of the Ashley River is famous among environmental regulators for a 1992 incident in which shrimp contaminated with phosphorous spontaneously caught fire when removed from the water.”  http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20111208/PC1602/312089872)

Did you get that?  The air and water was so polluted that sea creatures removed from the water spontaneously caught fire.  Yet I distinctly remember children playing in the same air that engulfed those shrimp.  I am not a fan of government solutions for the problems of people.  My dad, after all, didn’t want anyone to give him clothes or a better place to live.  Instead, he wanted an education, and when he couldn’t have that, he wanted a job.  But I hated that building and I hated whatever circumstances led those families to have to live among the industrial chimneys.  I’d have supported almost anything that helped those people move into cleaner and safer homes.

When we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday each January, I often think of Charleston.  I’m glad that the Gullah women are openly recognized for their creative and functional contributions to culture.  I miss the pretty wrought iron gates.  And I wonder what has happened to the children who lived in that building.

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In roughly the same year as Pat Conroy motored in his little boat out to Daufuskie Island to teach Gullah children about brushing their teeth and classical music, I attended Alice Birney Elementary School in Charleston, South Carolina and read what has remained my favorite book.  Both Alice Birney Elementary and the school on Daufuskie played an active role in the great experimentations in education of the sixties and seventies.  Daufuskie hired its first white teacher, and my school tried out block scheduling, independent learning, and sorting children by ability.  While the children of Daufuskie weren’t allowed to leave the island, I was given unprecedented freedoms.

Our Health teacher drew a grid on a sheet of butcher paper six or seven feet long.  She wrote our names into the wide column on the left and wrote the names of health-related topics in the angled row on the top.  She showed us her file cabinet, its top drawer filled readings on each topic.  The second drawer held the quizzes.  She told us to choose a topic, read the material, put it back, then take the test.  Each time we passed a test, we got to mark an X in the associated square.  We felt like we were in college, learning at our own pace, choosing our subjects without interference from adults.  Later in the year, she organized an evening field trip to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, playing the soundtrack while we read our health topics.

Mr. Simpson, our health teacher, was the only African-American person we encountered on a daily basis.  One day during square dancing, a tall ungainly boy released the hand of his partner, the only girl in the lowest class on the academic rung, in a way that signaled his disgust at having to touch her.  Mr. Simpson lit into that boy like a drill instructor cussing out a disobedient recruit.  He made clear to that boy and everyone within hearing distance that we had no business treating anyone, male or female, black or white, with anything other than the utmost respect.  Just like the poster says, I don’t remember what he was wearing or what he said, but I will never forget how it made me feel.  At Graduation, we all begged to have our mothers take pictures of us with Mr. Simpson.  We loved him.

And in the sixth grade, we received copies of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Our teacher, much older than the Health teacher and Mr. Simpson, curled her lip as she handed it out.  She mispronounced Calpurnia as Calpurnicka, Zeebo as Zebbo.  We gathered that she wasn’t fully committed to the idea that we white children should have to read about this kind of thing.

This kind of thing being courage in the face of bigotry.

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