Sacrifices of war hit home in Liberty Hill

Charleston County Council member Henry Darby addresses a crowd gathered at a 2007 Citizens Patrol Against Drugs rally in North Charleston.

By the time the 1950s rolled in, the Liberty Hill neighborhood near Park Circle was an enclave for blacks, self-sufficient, thriving. Retail stores and small groceries lined Montague Avenue, church pews filled up, students walked to Liberty Hill Elementary School and to Bonds-Wilson High School.

The streets were safe, everybody knew everybody.

Part of the community was fenced off, according to resident Henry Darby, a Charleston County councilman who grew up there and wrote the book “Liberty Hill’s Fighting Men.” The line that divided the black neighborhood from the white neighborhood was Mixon Avenue, he said.

“It was a purely segregated community,” Darby said. It still is.

The neighborhood had been founded on May 10, 1871, by four freed slaves from Georgetown. During the Reconstruction period, land there was for sale and made available to blacks at reasonable prices. Mostly it was settled by the poor.

Desegregation in this North Charleston neighborhood during the 1960s and 1970s frayed Liberty Hill’s well-established edges and weakened its once-concentrated economy.

During that period the Vietnam War raged, and a disproportionate number of Liberty Hill residents, 66 to be exact, signed up — about 10 percent of a community whose population was around 600, Darby said. Eight men died in the war.

That sacrifice is the subject of a free symposium hosted by the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum at 11 a.m. Friday. Panelists include Darby; Vietnam veteran and Liberty Hill resident Odell Price; and Afreda Lavaine, sister of Nathan White, who lost his life in the war.

Singer Ann Caldwell and Lonnie Hamilton, former music director at the old Bonds-Wilson High School and former Charleston County Council member, will perform the National Anthem. Sen. Tim Scott is scheduled to commend Price via live-streamed or prerecorded video. Warren Peper, a former TV news anchor and Post and Courier veteran, will host.

The event is part of Patriots Point’s ongoing efforts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It will be held inside the USS Yorktown’s Smokey Stover Theater.

Darby’s book was a product of his long-standing interest in history and his profound ties to his neighborhood, he said. As a young man, he wanted to write about Martin Luther King Jr., but a graduate school teacher stopped him.

“If you really want to record history, go home, because history is there,” the teacher said. So that’s what Darby did.

He discovered that many Liberty Hill residents joined the war effort in an attempt to escape poverty. The G.I. Bill promised an education and career.

“The military offered a measure of opportunity,” he said. “They probably didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, but some went for love of country.”

Odell Price was one who knew what he was getting himself into.

Price had talked with a neighbor up the street who had returned from one tour only to find himself preparing for another. But, as a 17-year-old high school graduate, Price saw opportunity.

“I just saw that as a way to get the G.I. Bill, that’s mainly what I was interested in, because I didn’t think my parents could afford to send me to school at that time,” he said.

He enlisted in the Marine Corps and endured a 13-month tour in 1967-68, at the height of the war. Price was trained as an infantry machine gunner. He was part of a four-man squad, rotating between ammunition carrier, gunner and team leader. “I was out there in the bush,” he said.

He was in a few firefights. He was in the battle of Khe Sanh, a major months-long engagement with North Vietnamese forces, offering reinforcement when the city was surrounded by enemy fighters.

When he was part of a battalion ordered to charge and take control of a hill, a mortar round exploded nearby.

“It was so close that the blast knocked me out,” Price said. He had a concussion. “All I remember was some guys shaking me and waking me up.”

What he didn’t realize until months later was that he took a piece of shrapnel, too, in his left side, at the base of his rib cage.

When he showed up for his physical at the Charleston Naval Shipyard in 1973, the doctor asked him, “Were you ever in a knife fight?” The small piece of metal posed no significant danger, so Price left it there and went to work, first as an apprentice in electronics engineering, then as a mechanic and, eventually, a supervisor.

He worked at the Navy Yard for 28 years and six months, until it closed in 1996.

During that time he watched Liberty Hill change. What once was a stable, safe place had become a neighborhood in flux, with people coming and going all the time, he said.

“I used to know everybody, not just on my street, not just the adults,” Price said. “Not anymore.”

Darby said actions by local government have made the problem worse. When Montague Avenue was widened in 1972, businesses disappeared. Educated blacks have left the area, and few return. Liberty Hill Elementary and Bonds-Wilson High are gone, along with that sense of self-sufficiency they engendered, Darby said.

Drugs found their way to Liberty Hill in the 1980s. Darby formed the Citizens Patrol Against Drugs (CPAD) and recruited Price to join the effort to clean up the streets. The North Charleston Police Department provided essential support.

Squads of concerned residents walked through the neighborhood every night, targeting the weakest link in the drug-supply chain, the customers — often white buyers who drove into Liberty Hill to score. Price said the strategy worked. When the customers stopped coming, the sellers left for greener pastures and the illegal transactions and consequent violence subsided.

“The only problem (left) was the local people with a drug habit,” Price said. “If you decide to put forth the effort, with the right approach it can be dealt with.”

And today, two churches are striving to revitalize the area. Both Charity Missionary Baptist Church and Royal Missionary Baptist Church are expanding their campuses and attracting more and more worshippers, many of whom come from other neighborhoods.

Darby, though, is not very confident that brighter days lie ahead for his beloved neighborhood.

“Liberty Hill is really sick, it’s on its sick bed, and if it doesn’t recover soon, it’s going to die,” he said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.