James Smalls and his wife Annette have lived in the Maryville-Ashleyville neighborhood since 1969, converting a small, run-down block house into a two-story brick home with a tidy yard.

They have seen crime up close but also witnessed the narrow streets here become safer.

They have seen improvements to their neighborhood playground where children can shoot hoops or just hang out and repair a bike.

And they fought hard — and successfully — to rid the neighborhood of what they saw as its biggest problem: an adult bookstore right in the middle, at Sycamore Avenue and St. Andrews Boulevard.

But they realize that they will need help if the neighborhood is going to continue to improve, and that’s why the upcoming Aug. 13 Democratic primary and Oct. 1 special election to fill Robert Ford’s state Senate seat is on their minds.

“When Robert Ford was in the Senate, he’d always come back into the neighborhood,” Smalls said. “That’s the kind of representation we want for the community — not just someone to get our vote and forget about us after the election.”

His wife Annette nodded. “If I support them,” she said, “I expect them to support the community we live in.”

Special race, special place

Among all those voting in the upcoming state Senate 42 election, residents of Maryville-Ashleyville, a historically African-American neighborhood in West Ashley, may have an extra sense of what’s at stake.

The contest will fill the seat vacated when Ford resigned as his fellow senators determined he used his campaign funds for personal use. It also will determine who gets a high-profile post to represent the Lowcountry’s large black community.

Old timers here appreciate how powerful Columbia can be.

Maryville once was one of the Lowcountry’s few majority black towns — where black elected officials levied taxes and policed the streets decades before the civil rights movement. In 1936, as friction emerged between black and white residents, state lawmakers stripped away that power and dissolved the town.

Neighborhood Association President Diane Hamilton said the incorporation fight is over, but residents here still want respect.

“There are always some people who are going to object, whether it’s 2013 or 1936,” she said. Revoking the charter did not simply reflect Maryville’s lack of clout, she said, “but those in the majority didn’t have any compassion for the minority. And we’re still dealing with that even today.”

Three centuries-plus of history

The Maryville-Ashleyville neighborhood lies just south of Charles Towne Landing and traces its earliest history to the years immediately following the 1670 founding of the Carolina colony.

But the neighborhood that exists today began taking shape shortly after the Civil War, when the land here was subdivided and sold to local black and white families. A black woman named Mary Matthews Just encouraged residents here to transform their community into a town.

In 1886, her efforts paid off, and the town — one of the state’s first with a majority black voting population — was named in her honor.

But the area, like today, was integrated, and the first attempt to disband the town came in 1933, when some white merchants in the town bristled at being taxed. A compromise was reached, but three years later, the end arrived.

A1936 News and Courier article noted a growing number of white residents sought to revoke Maryville’s charter “to improve the policing, health and road conditions. ... The county police have no right in there, therefore the white residents are at the mercy of these negroes.”

The story also noted calls to disband Lincolnville, a similar town near Summerville, but it managed to survive.

Later in the 20th century, the community was split by Saint Andrews Boulevard — a four-lane highway serving new developments farther from the city. The blocks west of the new highway kept the Maryville name, while the section closest to the river began to be called “Ashleyville.”

A heated election

This working-class community along the banks of the Ashley River already has seen heavy campaigning: Most candidates have stopped by, and their signs dot its narrow streets just off St. Andrews Boulevard.

Six Democrats will meet in an Aug. 13 primary, and a Republican and a Libertarian also will be on the Oct. 1 special election ballot.

These seats don’t come open often — Ford held his seat for about 20 years — so the crowded field is no surprise.

Randy Gillispie, a disabled veteran who has lived in the neighborhood before its streets were paved, said it’s the kind of neighborhood where people pull each other’s garbage cans back.

“Everybody knows everybody,” he said.

Gillispie recently talked near a corner marked by four different political signs. One reason campaigning here is intense is that no candidate lives nearby — no one has home-field advantage here.

Democrat Emmanuel Ferguson, a Charleston lawyer, is the only candidate who lives in West Ashley. Gillispie said he is backing Ferguson, but not because of where he lives. “I just like him,” he said. “He’s about trying to give something back.”

Going door to door

North Charleston businesswoman Margaret Rush said she has campaigned door to door here, as have her opponents.

Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston lawyer who also is making his first run for office, said he made a point to visit Maryville-Ashleyville early. He called the neighborhood “a culturally significant and politically aware area.”

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Charleston Democrat supporting Kimpson, represents this area in the House and introduced Kimpson to James and Annette Smalls. They were sold and have one of Kimpson’s purple yard signs in front of their home.

“I like the way he speaks,” Smalls said of Kimpson.”

But the other candidates also have been hard at work here.

Retired veterans’ counselor Herbert Fielding, whose father held the Senate seat before Ford, said he gets a little different feel when campaigning here. “A lot of people say, ‘We got you, don’t worry about it. We’ve got your back,’ ” he said.

Overall, Fielding said this Senate 42 race is stirring up interest not only in this neighborhood but also in the larger black community.

“I think this race is good for the black community because they’re interested in it. The community can be apathetic, but they aren’t this time,” he said. “They’ve got a good field of candidates.”

Ferguson said when he has campaigned there, he has talked to residents concerned about their ability to remain in the neighborhood as more discover its marsh views with the peninsular city in the distance.

“I campaign there,” he said, “and have met people who fear they will be carried away by either the ‘law man’ or the ‘tax man.’ ”

Former Charleston City Council candidate Maurice Washington said he feels a special kinship to the neighborhood because he led an effort to annex the area into the city.

“I challenged city officials to go back out and do the proper solicitations to bring Ashleyville into the city,” he said. “I understand that community very well.”

“Those are serious voting people,” he added. “It’s going to be a very, very important in determining who the next senator is going to be, I believe.”

About the future

While the town is long gone, its independent spirit remains.

“I think it’s a very important election because we need someone who will go to the state capital and voice our views and fight for the things that would benefit the neighborhood,” said Hamilton, a retired school teacher.

She said she is most interested in funding for public education and in the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid as outlined under the Affordable Care Act.

“I think we ought not to look at just the wealthiest people in our community but also focus on the working class,” she said. “Everything seems to be for business, but what about the people these businesses will serve? I don’t see anything filtering down. Those who have get more. Those who do not have get less.”
Because the Senate district is 62 percent black, whoever wins the Aug. 13 Democratic primary — or the likely Aug. 27 Democratic runoff — will be seen as the heavy favorite on Oct 1. But if a Democrat is elected, the new senator will have to serve in a Statehouse that has grown increasingly Republican.

Ford had a reputation, especially early in his career, for being outspoken and ruffling feathers, and Hamilton liked that.

“He would say things that needed to be said. He was not afraid to address certain issues. We need someone who will continue that,” she said. “This is going to be a difficult decision.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.