MOUNT PLEASANT — Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, the only black member this town’s council has ever had, won’t seek re-election this fall after serving 17 years.
“I feel it’s time for me to pass the torch,” she said. “I think we need younger folks. I think we need more women and people who really have the town’s best interests at heart.”
One of her last projects has been working to make sure that the voice of the entire community, including the minority community, continues to be heard — a particular challenge because of the unique demographics east of the Cooper River.
While the number of black residents here has remained stable, most of those moving in are white, making the town more than 90 percent white.
And many of the black residents live in historic settlements dating from the end of slavery. Many of these dozen or so neighborhoods, such as Snowden, Phillips and Six Mile, are found in unincorporated doughnut holes — within the town’s limits but not in the town.
Stokes-Marshall, the Town Council’s longest consecutive serving member, has helped bridge that political divide, and while she was elected at-large by all the town’s voters, she has worked hard to create more affordable housing and to ensure that sweetgrass basket makers are protected as U.S. Highway 17 was widened and the area further developed.
She said she seldom thinks in terms of race but tries to represent everyone.
“I’m out there in the community. I see what’s going on. I go on the other side of the fence where on one side you have a $350,000-home community and on the other side you have people living in shacks,” she said. “I see things. I could ignore them, but I chose not to. I chose to at least try to do something to improve people’s quality of life.”
As the town’s political discussion gets increasingly dominated by concerns over whether the town is growing too fast, Stokes-Marshall has been a voice for affordability.
She has spoken up for the likes of Barbara Collier, a black woman who lives on Mathis Ferry Road, who recently told the town’s Planning Committee that it seems as if everyone who moves to the town wants to be the last person and then to have the door closed behind them. Collier urged council members to think about affordability and about the future of black residents, some of whose ancestors built Confederate defenses here during the Civil War.
“The battery builders were part of the whole town,” she said. “Although we’re small in number, we were here, we’re still here, and we don’t want to leave.”
Stokes-Marshall was born and grew up here until age 3, when her family moved north. She spent most of her professional life as a detective with the New York Police Department, returning regularly to see extended family.
When she reached retirement age two decades ago, “I looked at the housing options, and it just made good sense to come back home,” which she did in 1993.
She first won a seat on Town Council in 1998, becoming the first African American to serve there.
Her steady demeanor helped her win re-election several more times, as mayors and other council members came and went (and, in a few cases, came back).
When the region’s sweetgrass basket-makers faced threats from development, a loss of sweetgrass and other challenges, Stokes-Marshall volunteered to lead an annual festival that helps draw recognition to their cultural and historical value.
The Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival is now one of the town’s biggest events, held each year at Waterfront Park, which also has a pavilion for the basket-makers. She did not learn the rich history of the baskets until she moved back home and has become one of their biggest champions.
But Stokes-Marshall is equally passionate about the town’s senior citizens center, which was named in her honor when it opened its doors six years ago. Making sure a second senior center is built in the northern end of town is among her top goals before leaving.
Her passion for the senior center would not surprise those who are familiar with her professional work in New York, where she supervised Police Athletic League programs in that city’s five boroughs until she retired.
Stokes-Marshall said one of Town Council’s biggest challenges is to keep all residents’ interests in mind and not divide segments of the town against one another.
There is a history of that. After the Civil War, Mount Pleasant briefly served as the seat of Berkeley County until 1895, when it was drawn into Charleston County during the post-Reconstruction redrawing of county lines.
Much of the area that Mount Pleasant currently covers was much more racially diverse until a white influx arrived during the last part of the 20th century, said Damon Fordham, a Mount Pleasant pastor and author of “Voices of Black South Carolina-Legend and Legacy.”
Fordham said Stokes-Marshall’s presence on Town Council has been important, despite — and because of — the black community’s decline as a percent of the town’s population.
Many local governments ensure diversity by electing council members from single-member districts, which can be drawn to help minorities get a say so.
But Mount Pleasant still elects its mayor and all eight council members at-large: All voters vote for all council members.
Mayor Linda Page said there has been discussion about changing to single-member districts from time to time, but there is no active effort to make a change.
“Diversity is important because we have a diverse community,” Page said, “but I also think that if you really want to ask the question about diversity and the town’s demographics, we should be more than 50 percent women (on Town Council).”
Currently, the town has a female mayor in Page, but Stokes-Marshall is the only woman among the town’s eight council members.
Page said the council has talked about single-member districts, “but most council members like the form of government that we have. I like the form of government we have. To me, it’s still my Mount Pleasant. It’s still a small town. I might be naïve about that, but that’s how I feel.”
George Freeman, a black Mount Pleasant resident and an unsuccessful candidate for both mayor and town council, took part in a federal lawsuit a decade ago to force Charleston County Council to change from at-large to single-member districts.
“But the situation is not as clear cut in Mount Pleasant as it was with the county,” Freeman said, adding he would not be interested in joining a similar lawsuit again. “Once was enough for me.”
The numbers aren’t as clear cut, either. Charleston County Council had only one of nine minority members in a county that’s one-third black, while the town has had Stokes-Marshall — and only 4.4 percent of its registered voters are black. And that population isn’t concentrated in a single part of town.
Stokes-Marshall has not been to Town Council meetings during the past month while she recovers from a shoulder replacement.
But her newest project is taking place outside council chambers. She has been urged to find a candidate who would continue her work, and she has found one.
Rodly Millet, president at Millbrooke Human Resource Consulting LLC, got to know Stokes-Marshall since he moved to Mount Pleasant in 2002. They met by serving together on the board of the Charleston Urban League.
“I’ve very positive feelings about Rodly. I think he can bring a lot to council,” Stokes-Marshall said. “If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He’s dependable. He’s reliable, and he’s a people person.”
She said she is concerned the town’s leadership is not as diverse, “and I’m not just talking about race, I’m talking about gender also. It does not just apply to our Town Council members but also our boards and commissions. It is not just going to happen. Our council members and the people who are leaders in this town will have to put forth an effort.”
She gave Millet praise similar to how some might praise her: “I like the way he operates — very low key, but he’s about getting things done.”
Being low key — with a sense of collaboration and cooperation — has been crucial to whatever success Stokes-Marshall has had.
“I’m one person, and I cannot accomplish anything by myself,” she said. “The accomplishments that have been achieved during the terms I’ve been on council have come about because of the collaboration between my fellow council members as we looked at the various issues of concern.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.