A Charlestonian’s morning drive through the Crosstown never fails to provide amusing fodder for the office break room.
Daily tales of fellow commuters seen eating pancakes, touching up mascara or stirring coffee as they simultaneously change lanes and jockey for position are met with amazement and sighs of relief that everyone in the Holy City arrived at work unscathed and on time.
Regular players in this motorized company are seldom shocked by the oddities they witness when the curtain goes up at 8 a.m. each weekday on the Septima P. Clark Parkway.
Beyond the newly surfaced three-lane stage, just in the wings, grow the “flowers” of the Crosstown. Their shining faces laugh as they chat with their friends or hold hands with their parents as they make their way to various Charleston schools. They dash up to their crossing guards who greet them with smiles and hugs, and within the hour, they will gather in their classrooms with all the other children from their community.
Their day will play out laced with laughter and lunch, listening and learning, and their hopes and dreams will be nurtured and fed in preparation for a bright future.
At every traffic light, we can watch all of this from our front-row seats. How appropriate that their theater is named for Septima Poinsette Clark.
Born in Charleston to formerly enslaved parents, Clark graduated from high school in 1916. Barred from teaching in Charleston public schools, she was able to find work as a teacher in a rural school district on Johns Island.
In her school of 132 students, as a teaching principal, she made $35 a week, and her assistant teacher made $25. The white school across the street had three students, and their teacher was paid $85 a week.
This experience with inequality in 1919 led Clark to become an advocate for pay equalization for teachers, which brought her into the movement for civil rights, 10 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born.
In 1920, Clark (and her sixth-grade students) helped petition the neighborhoods for a portion of 10,000 signatures to take to the Legislature to earn the right for blacks to serve as principals in Charleston’s public schools. It was the first of many legal victories she won for equality in education.
She was dismissed as a teacher in 1956 for refusing to resign her position as Charleston’s NAACP vice president. With more time to devote to the cause, in the early 1960s, she organized and developed “Citizenship Schools” throughout the Deep South.
In her schools, adults were taught to read, and in workshops they learned how to sign checks and complete driver’s license exams. Portions of the Constitution were interpreted, which was required knowledge for voter registration.
Literacy united her students and taught them to act collectively against racism. Leaders emerged who would come to serve with her in the civil rights movement. One of her students was a young Alabama woman named Rosa Parks.
Some know Septima Poinsette Clark as the grandmother of the American civil rights movement. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Norway in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, he insisted that Clark accompany him to the award ceremony.
Later, she came to serve two terms on the Charleston County School Board.
The green street signs make me think of Clark during the chaotic morning commute through the Crosstown. She considered chaos a gift, as according to her, it “creates wonderful thinking.”
Watching the workers place plants along the route makes me think of the future, as gardens always do. I think of the bright future that Clark’s life’s work made possible for these children, and for their children to come.
Despite past winter days, seasons of angry storms and the occasional overflow of salty sea, your Crosstown “flowers” are blooming, Septima P. Clark. Oh, how they are blooming.
Sue Bennett, a Hanahan resident, is a local historian, lecturer, guide for walking tours, church secretary and mother of grown children.