It’s been more than two years since the death of longtime Democratic state Rep. Joe Neal, the Lower Richland legislator who was known for championing progressive causes.
Now, members of Neal’s family, along with a group of elected officials and pastors, are hoping to raise awareness for a nonprofit that focuses on an issue that was important to the lawmaker from Hopkins.
Neal, who served in the state House of Representatives for 24 years and was the co-chairman of the South Carolina Progressive Network, died in February 2017. Known as a compassionate bridge-builder on a wide array of issues, Neal is remembered by many for his stirring speech on the House floor in 2015, when he implored his colleagues to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds after a white supremacist murdered nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Neal also was key in passing legislation to track traffic stops by law enforcement, an effort to combat racial profiling.
In 2018, Neal’s family established the Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative, a nonprofit that is dedicated to the eradication of HIV and AIDS in South Carolina. The collaborative, which is headquartered on Hampton Street in Columbia, partners with CAN Community Health, a medical group that focuses specifically on helping those with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. During his time in the Legislature, Neal often pushed for funding in the state budget for HIV prevention and drug assistance.
Longtime Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson says Neal was a “close friend and ally.” Both men were elected to the General Assembly in 1992. He says fighting to end HIV and AIDS in South Carolina was one of Neal’s key interests.
“This was a passion of Representative Neal,” Jackson says. “There are many things that he worked on, but healthcare and the [HIV] effort were something that he cared greatly about. Not often do House members leave the House chambers and come and lobby senators, but whenever [HIV funding] was in the budget, I could count on Representative Joe Neal coming and saying, ‘Let’s go.’ And we would go desk to desk, senator to senator, to say, ‘This is important.’”
The South, and South Carolina, continue to have a disproportionate problem with HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 52 percent of new HIV diagnoses in the nation in 2017 were in the South. South Carolina was the eighth highest in per capita diagnoses among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., with 14.3 diagnoses per 100,000 people.
On Aug. 31 at Lower Richland High School, there will be a fundraiser for the Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative, when Georgetown’s Sweet Gilliard Productions hosts a performance of God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, which is based on the 1927 book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, the late educator, lawyer and civil rights activist. The 40-member Gospel Music Workshop Choir, along with the Zeb Harrison and the Sounds of Praise Band, both from Charlotte, will perform as part of the show, and eight Midlands pastors will help recite the various sermons.
Aug. 31 would have been Neal’s 69th birthday.
Among the preachers who will take part in the production is Democratic District 79 state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, who is a pastor at Columbia’s Rehoboth Baptist Church. The lawmaker says he considered Neal a mentor.
“He was, and will continue to be, even in death, a moral compass for [the State House],” Thigpen says. “It was he who would champion what sometimes seemed like impossible issues. But no matter how daunting the task, how high the mountain, Joe was always ready for the challenge to climb.”
Figures from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control indicate that about 20,000 people in South Carolina have HIV or AIDS. African Americans are disproportionately affected, at about 69 percent of those diagnoses.
Neal’s sister, Wilma Neal Garen, says Neal was acutely aware of how HIV impacts the black community.
“He was exceedingly aware of it,” Garen says. “Which is why, for 25 years, he fought for funding for those agencies that were here. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. … We’re stepping into the breach to help those other agencies accomplish the goal of eradicating this disease in our state.”
Tickets for God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse are $35 and can be purchased at the Joseph H. Neal Health Collaborative offices at 1911 Hampton St.