Edgefield escaping past

A statue of late, longtime U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond is the focal point of the town square in Edgefield on a rainy Friday.

Editor's note: As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Post and Courier is exploring the impact of the historic law with an occasional series.

EDGEFIELD - It's difficult to go far in this rural town known for potters, peaches and politics without sensing the presence of the man who is arguably its most revered native son.

A life-size statue of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond stands over the town square. His name adorns a nearby brick wall alongside nine other local-bred governors. Memorabilia from his storied political career fills rooms at a downtown grill and a museum a few blocks away. Hundreds of students pass his portrait each day at the high school that bears his name.

Thurmond, who died in 2003 after nearly five decades in the Senate, built his legacy in part by vigorously defending the segregationist society in which he was raised. His 1957 filibuster against civil rights legislation remains the longest on record. And he bolted to the Republican Party after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, portions of which he called "stupid and illogical."

But 50 years after Thurmond lost his battle to keep South Carolina's Jim Crow laws intact, his beloved hometown has become a rather integrated place where blacks serve along with whites in elected offices and schoolchildren learn and play with friends of different races.

Old sentiments die hard for some, but a good many townspeople contend that Edgefield has become an increasingly color-blind community where people are judged by their merit rather than the color of their skin.

"We still have our struggles, but I've seen a lot of progress," Mayor Ken Durham, who is white, said. "To say things are perfect in Edgefield, I'd say no, they're not. There is still an element of racism. You've got that factor. But the majority of us try to get along, do get along and respect each other."

In many ways, Edgefield's experience is a story that has played out across the Palmetto State and the South as a whole since integration took effect. Race remains a complicated subject; the past, far from forgotten. But progress has been made and, at a human level, people have found ways to move beyond the barriers that once separated them.

Nancy Gilliam, who runs the Mercy Me! fashion and gift shop on Main Street, came of age during the civil rights era and credits the changes that occurred with allowing her generation to move beyond the institutionalized bigotry of the past. When Edgefield's schools integrated, the mixing of races had an outcome some in the old guard had not anticipated, she said.

"We all just became friends," Gilliam, who is white, said. "Most of the people in Edgefield, we don't see color anymore."

A while back, Gilliam handed the keys to her flower shop down the street to a black man she calls "my son." She's known 49-year-old James "Maine" Gilchrist since he was kid. He started working at her shop when he was 12 and became like a brother to her children. She even taught him how to drive. Now, he's a businessman in his own right.

Gilchrist knows some traces of racism linger. "But most people around here, they're not like that," he said.

Not everyone shares this rosy viewpoint, of course. Take 76-year-old Willie Bright, whose battles for equality led him to become Edgefield County Council's first black chairman in the 1980s. While progress has been made in Edgefield, he said, blacks still lag far behind in wealth, power and opportunity.

"Maybe things are a little better, but it ain't as sweet as it all sounds," he said. "(The Civil Rights Act) allowed us to sit down and eat in the same restaurant, but we can't make a dollar to pay for the meal."

This crossroads town of 4,750 people is tucked away in a quiet corner of the state, about 60 miles southwest of Columbia. A pine forest and a lake - also named for Thurmond - are about all that separate the town from the Georgia border.

Surrounded by miles of cotton fields and peach orchards and distinguished by the stately brick buildings that line its main drag, Edgefield is quintessential small town South Carolina. Its quaint downtown, the community's hub, is like a postcard from days gone by, with a neighborhood hardware store, mom-and-pop cafes, a billiard hall and the weathered, old-time facade of the Plantation House Inn.

A painted quotation from longtime News and Courier editor William Watts Ball graces a brick wall and speaks to the town's colorful past: "Edgefield has had more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, and daredevils than any other county in South Carolina, if not of any rural county of America."

A colorful past, yes, but also contentious, particularly on the subject of race. In 1856, hometown Congressman Preston Brooks, a virulent defender of slavery, beat an abolitionist colleague senseless with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, an unapologetic racist widely known for advocating lynchings, also grew up in these parts and is among the 10 locals to be elected governor, serving in the 1890s.

Thurmond drew on this heritage when he joined the U.S. Senate and became a staunch opponent of efforts to extend civil rights to blacks. He warned that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would upend the Constitution, provoking marches and protests. He described its passage as "a tragic day" in the nation's history.

Durham, Edgefield's 57-year-old mayor, was just a kid when the civil rights law passed in July 1964, outlawing voter literacy tests, ending discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and desegregating all "public accommodations" engaged in commercial activity.

Durham has vague memories of tension in the air, as jittery people confronted a sea change in their way of life. But he saw no outright signs of upheaval or violence. Mostly, life just went on.

The Rev. Jasper Lloyd, who is black, agreed. Lloyd, 71, grew up at a time when he and other residents of color had to use separate bathrooms, drink from black-only fountains and attend segregated schools in Edgefield. The Civil Rights Act helped change all that, but folks in town largely kept their opinions about it to themselves, if only to preserve the peace, he said.

"No one would hardly say anything," he recalled. "You'd walk in the store ... and no one would discuss it. I reckon they discussed it when they went home or in private. But it was not a public thing on the street."

One old account has it that the town filled in its public swimming pool with concrete after the act passed so white residents wouldn't have to share its waters with black citizens.

Developer Bettis Rainsford, who doubles as a local historian, disputed the accuracy of that story, saying the pool was filled due to structural problems too expensive to fix. The net effect was the same, as community swimming moved to a pool at the local country club, which was open only to whites at the time.

A number of whites also placed their children in a newly opened private academy when county schools were fully integrated in 1969, a widely used tactic in South Carolina at the time to avoid sending kids to racially mixed classrooms. Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, battled for true equality with a host of lawsuits aimed at ending discriminatory voting practices and other remnants of the Jim Crow era.

Rainsford said racial tensions reached a boiling point in 1985, when Bright and two other black residents joined Edgefield County Council after a lawsuit led to redistricting. Not only were they council's first black members, they constituted a majority on the five-member panel.

What's more, they elected Bright as chairman and hired Tom McCain, a black lawyer who had spearheaded the lawsuit over voting rights, to serve as county administrator. White residents feared the worst, that services would deteriorate and taxes would skyrocket, author Margaret Edds noted in her 1987 book, "Free at Last: What Really Happened When Civil Rights Came to Southern Politics."

That didn't happen. Instead, when whites regained a slim majority on the council two years later, they voted to keep Bright and McCain in their positions, signalling approval for the job the pair had done running the county, Rainsford said.

The way Rainsford sees it, that "exceptionally fine move" was indicative of the common bonds that eventually prevail in a small community like Edgefield, where folks from different backgrounds truly get to know one another.

"You know people as individuals and don't necessarily think about whether they are black or white," he said.

Lloyd, the town councilman, has a similar philosophy. "I have never been pro-black, and I have never been pro-white. I am pro-right, and I believe if you do the right thing, you are entitled to succeed."

Not everyone buys that notion. County Councilman Norman Dorn, who is black, is not convinced any progress toward equality would have come about in Edgefield if not for measures like the Civil Rights Act and the lawsuits that followed to enforce its provisions.

Dorn said his grandfather battled Ku Klux Klan members in the late 1800s and he is continuing in that tradition today by making sure lingering racism doesn't stifle the voice of black voters. He said he is planning a voter registration drive in June to expand that voice.

The Rev. Eldwin Griffin, president of the Edgefield County NAACP chapter, said black voters need to be wary lest they lose hard-fought ground. He pointed to the firing of black schools superintendent Mary Rice Crenshaw in 2011 as a sign of what's at stake. The school board ousted her without cause in a racially divided vote, with its two black members opposing the move, according to multiple published reports.

Greg Anderson, who is white, now holds the superintendent's post, conducting his job from Thurmond's old Senate office desk. It was a gift to the district from the late senator, who himself once served as Edgefield's school chief.

"There have been changes over the years," Griffin said. "But you can see some things floating backward around here."

While many white residents recall Thurmond as a bold and benevolent statesman who always thought to send cards and wishes to his constituents on their birthdays, blacks tend to view him as a stubborn and vocal impediment to equality.

Thurmond tempered his views on race as the years passed, and he went on to support a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. In a large display on his life in the Edgefield Discovery Center, a photo of Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the black daughter Thurmond fathered out of wedlock and kept secret, now sits prominently next to those of his other children.

Coming to terms with its own past, however, has not always been easy for his hometown.

Durham, Edgefield's mayor, knows some hard feelings linger on both sides from the old days, vestiges of the past that won't die. But he said he has plenty of reason for hope as well.

He recalled how his daughter approached him 12 years ago while coordinating plans for her high school prom. Though local schools had been integrated for years, black and white students still held separate proms. That didn't sit well with Durham's daughter, so much so that she considered stepping down as head of the prom committee.

"She said 'Daddy, I'm going to have to give this up. I can't do it,'" he recalled. "She said 'I can't organize a prom and not invite half my friends.' I said 'Do you realize what you're getting ready to do here?'"

She went back and told the committee she was going to organize one prom, not two. They went along with it, the prom turned out to be a success and they've had one prom ever since, Durham said.

At the high school named after Thurmond, blacks now outnumber whites by about 80 students, or 10 percent, but there wasn't much indication on a recent afternoon that the teens paid attention to such things. White, black and Hispanic students sat with one another at lunch, shared gossip in the halls and marched to class in tandem. When a visiting photographer asked a group about racial dynamics at the school, the students seemed perplexed by the question.

The school ditched its old mascot - a cartoonish Southern aristocrat dubbed Colonel Reb - about a decade ago after critics complained it harkened back to the days of black oppression. But the school held onto its nickname, "The Rebels," after a number of defenders, including black students, argued for preserving the school's identity.

"The kids had no problem with it. They didn't see it as standing for what the adults thought it did," said James Courtney, director of facilities and operations for the Edgefield County School District. "They just don't see things that way. They get along beautifully."

Griffin, the NAACP leader, thinks the black students who rallied behind the nickname were misled or didn't understand the struggles of the past. But others see a more benevolent cause.

Resident Dolly Padgett, who is white, said today's young people don't seem to harbor the same prejudices that dogged past generations. She recalled prom and homecoming being canceled the year the schools first integrated. But her own children found one of their dearest friends in a black classmate.

"I would never say to my children 'You can love this child but can't love that one because he is black,'" she said. "My faith just would not allow that."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.