Community leader, educator Higgins dies

Leonard Higgins, president of the Maryville/Ashleyville Neighborhood Association, led a 2002 march against an adult video store. The six-year effort ended with the store moving.

Leonard Higgins, president of the Maryville/Ashleyville Neighborhood Association and a past principal of St. John's High School, died Tuesday following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Higgins, 78, spent most of his life as an educator and community leader.

He was at the forefront of successful neighborhood efforts to drive an adult video store out of a West Ashley community several years ago, worked closely with the city of Charleston on crime-prevention efforts and helped organize an annual neighborhood street party.

"We often think of the things that a man does during his lifetime, but he was a husband, a father and a God-fearing Christian who worked for the betterment of the citizens and all mankind," said Cedric Smalls, a family friend and neighborhood association officer. "Knowing his condition, he would not complain, but would get up every day and do what he could for his community."

"He was an activist for many years, and the precedent he set as a citizen -- it's hard to find a role model better than him," Smalls said.

Higgins was still leading the neighborhood association at the time of his death, and had been working with the city on plans to build a pier on the Ashley River at the end of the West Ashley Bikeway.

"He always tried to stand for what was right, and do what was right for the community," said Higgins' son Leonard Higgins Jr. "It was an unselfish life that he lived."

A life-long resident of the Maryville/Ashleyville community, the elder Higgins was born when Maryville was still a town. Having been incorporated in the wake of the Civil War, Maryville was a predominantly black community with its own elected government and police force.

Under pressure from white merchants and politicians, however, the General Assembly revoked the town's charter in 1936. Higgins would have been 4 years old at the time, but even in his 70s, he could show visitors where landmarks of the former town had stood.

Maryville and Ashleyville are now mostly within the city of Charleston, located on both sides of St. Andrews Boulevard conveniently close to downtown. Despite the desirable location, the community has been troubled from time to time with drug-related crime and blight -- issues that kept Higgins and other community leaders busy.

"Let me tell you, he's left some big shoes for someone to fill," said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, who worked closely with Higgins as a City Council member. "I was honored just to be in his presence."

Gilliard said Higgins and his close friend James Smalls, Cedric Small's father, would walk the community most days, looking for problems to solve.

"I've seen him walk up to drug houses and tell those people to turn their lives around," Gilliard said.

Higgins was a graduate of Burke High School and Allen University. He went on to Atlanta University, where he earned a master's degree in biology in 1964. He served in the Army and later earned an educational specialist degree from The Citadel and certification as an elementary school principal from College of Charleston.

In Charleston County schools, Higgins was a science teacher, football coach, and later, an administrator.

Higgins held administrative posts at Frierson Elementary and Wallace Middle schools, and taught at St. Andrews and Wallace high schools, before becoming principal of St. John's High School in the late 1970s. After retiring from the school system, he ran a landscaping business.

He was married to Mildred Riley Higgins, and had four children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Leonard Higgins was a distinguished and gentle man with a strong dedication to the neighbors who lived around him and to the betterment of the city of Charleston for every resident," Mayor Joe Riley said. "His service was tireless and genuine."