From the second-floor bedroom of No. 38-D, Treasure Island spread out for acres and acres before young Maurice Washington.
It was here that he found his first bike, that he and his friends had their first drink from a half-empty whiskey bottle, and then went home and got sick. The city dump was a towering place of wonder, a playground really, for an 8-year-old kid and his pals at ‘’Back da Green,’’ the crime-ridden housing project that has been home to generations of poor African American families.
It’s a sure bet that no candidate running for mayor of Charleston has come as far as Maurice Washington. The ninth of 10 children living stuffed in a sweltering apartment in Gadsden Green, Washington and his siblings have prospered against all odds, thanks to a mom who taught her kids that when someone told them they couldn’t do something, ‘’Do it anyway.’’
There was poverty aplenty — and they learned early about flooding when the brown water bubbled up out of the shower drain, and they had to sweep it out the front door with a broom.
But it was a Wonderful Life, too. They hunted fiddler crabs in Gadsden Creek — the same creek the developers of West Edge now want to cover over — and crabbed and shrimped in the Ashley River. If you couldn’t afford the 10 cents or so to get into Herbert Hasell pool — and they couldn’t — you climbed over the fence at night until the cops showed up. The gangs at ‘’Back da Green’’ didn’t mess with them because of ‘’Big D,’’ their mountain of a big brother, Daniel.
It was their mom, Celestine, who somehow made it all work.
At 13, she got on a bus to run away from a brutal childhood in rural Ravenel. A second-grade dropout, she couldn’t read or write, but she could count just fine when it came time to tote up the bills. She couldn’t drive either — who had a car anyway? — so she most often walked to the Medical University of South Carolina, where she worked in the kitchen for more than three decades. The food she brought home every night fed not only her kids but dozens of neighboring kids. There was always room for another.
Douglas Washington, the father who raised Maurice and the others, worked on a city garbage truck and was an alcoholic. It was Daniel’s job, as an older brother, to meet his dad on Friday afternoon at the bar to pick up his pay before he drank it away or got ‘’turned,’’ robbed. But you loved your family: ‘’He was our dad. We never had a hungry day,’’ Daniel says.
Then one day, the police showed up at the door of 38-D. The garbage truck had returned to the garage, but Douglas Washington, a third-grade dropout who couldn’t read or write either, was missing. He was later found buried in the landfill.
A small settlement with the city allowed their mom to buy a shell of a house on Grove Street, just across from old College Park, where Maurice and his wife of 34 years, Violet, raised their four children and still live in their neat-as-a-pin home. His kid sister, Angela, and her family live upstairs.
After graduating from Burke where he was voted ‘’most likely to succeed,’’ ‘‘best dressed’’ and president of the student council, Maurice got on a bus to South Carolina State in Orangeburg with $250 in his pocket. He became the first in the family to graduate from college.
At 23, he lost his first race for the Legislature, and at 27 he won a seat on Charleston City Council by beating a 16-year incumbent. He wore his mom’s name tag from the MUSC kitchen when he was sworn in as she looked on. She died three years later at 70.
After two terms, he made an audacious run at Mayor Joe Riley. They had clashed bitterly over the future of Burke, and the relationship went downhill from there. In the campaign, Washington challenged Riley over the city’s finances, spending on things like the aquarium and the ballpark and annexation. Washington got 32 percent of the vote, not bad against Charleston’s great mayor.
Today, Washington, 58, is a rare African American Republican — his nine siblings are all Democrats. ‘’I couldn’t get elected as a dogcatcher after I ran as a Democrat against Joe Riley,’’ Washington said, sitting in front of Burke.
Washington, who runs his own insurance and investment firm, ran again for mayor four years ago, one of three black people in the race. He got 6 percent of the vote.
Now he is running for the third time, the only African American candidate. He faces daunting odds, to say the least. He had raised less than $9,000 as of the last filing in July, compared with $712,000 for Mayor John Tecklenburg and $503,000 for Councilman Mike Seekings.
But then, this is a guy who made it out of No. 38-D in ‘’Back da Green.’’ Maurice Washington isn’t conceding a thing: ‘’There’s no Joe Riley on that stage. These guys are little leaguers.’’
Mom would be proud.
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.