South Carolina debuts a new model for bridging racial divides

The South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation, based at the University of South Carolina, will launch 'welcome tables' around the state this fall.

Tim Dominick/The State/MCT/Newscom/File
Benefactors John and Anne Rainey for statues of Camden's native sons, Larry Doby, the first African-American to integrate the American Baseball League, and financier Bernard Baruch, of Jewish ancestry and an adviser to presidents, pose for a photo in Camden, S.C., in 2013. Camden, given its history and the involvement of the late Mr. Rainey, will be among the first South Carolinian communities to participate in a new racial reconciliation program starting in the fall of 2017.

In this rural outpost, a pair of statues collectively called “Reconciliation” celebrate two natives and their heritage, Jewish financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch and African-American baseball legend Larry Doby.

The town library features a bronze figurine of an African-American boy reading a Langston Hughes poem. And the police chief tells his officers they should acknowledge, in everyday conversations with black residents, policing’s legacy of racism — and find ways to apologize.

And yet even here in Camden, a town of 7,000 with a history of acceptance and openness, African-American resident Jacqueline Greene-Stuckey recalls a small white child pointing at her in the grocery store and asking, “Mommy, mommy is that the (n-word)?”

The South’s stubborn, persistent history of racial prejudice is usually not so brazenly on display. But the 2015 Charleston shooting, in which a white supremacist killed nine congregants at an African-American church, has created an opening for addressing its racial legacy head-on, says civil rights and political organizer Bud Ferillo.

In the wake of the mass shooting, he helped set up the South Carolina Collaborative for Race and Reconciliation at the University of South Carolina (USC), an initiative designed to encourage communities to address racism by building stronger alliances and friendships across racial lines. Camden, given its history, will be among the first communities in South Carolina to participate in the program, which debuts this fall.

“[South Carolina] is the home of American slavery. It was the major port of entry for 40 percent of slaves into the United States, nullification, states’ rights, secession, the act of secession, the start of the Civil War,” Mr. Ferillo says. “Now, in South Carolina, there’s a crack in the door, because of an interest on the part of community leaders to address this racial alienation that has persisted for so long. African Americans have been waiting for 350 years to have this conversation.”

‘The face of Camden’

Alfred Mae Drakeford, who recently became Camden’s first African-American mayor with a 24-vote win in November, recruited the black participants for the initiative; her predecessor, Tony Scully, recruited the white half of the group.

The initiative is focused around “welcome tables” that have even numbers of white and black participants who engage in exercises that build trust and foster deep, substantive dialogue. Camden’s welcome table will have 24 participants, guided by two facilitators.

Mayor Drakeford and two others, Ms. Greene-Stuckey and Connie Rouse, say in an interview in Drakeford’s small City Hall office that they are eager for the conversations to begin. 

There are specific issues they would like to address, such as how black children are treated in schools and ensuring African-Americans have a shot at civic leadership posts. But they also said they believe that a conversation on race is vital on its own.

While many, white and black, remain happily segregated in their view, the three said opportunities to address challenges when they arise as a unified community are sometimes lacking as African Americans are underrepresented on town boards and other leadership positions. Camden is about 35 percent black.

“In Camden, there’s no hatred, there’s not anger, there isn’t protest, but there is clearly two communities,” says Ms. Rouse, a writer and activist.

Drakeford says that as the only black member of the City Council for years, she didn’t want to be seen as the African-American community’s de facto voice. But that is often what happened.

“If I didn’t put it on the table, it wasn’t discussed,” Drakeford says.

Greene-Stuckey chimes in: “A lot of the time we say we’ve done it [transcended racial problems], and that’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard.”

The three start talking about Drakeford’s historic election. The only black member of the City Council for years, she ran against a fellow councilwoman, and while former Mayor Scully didn’t endorse anyone formally in the election, many knew he had said that when he stepped down he would back the other candidate.

Scully wrote a column in a local publication that said both were good choices and had the character and experience to be mayor. He also wrote: “As I see it, the core question remains, which candidate do you want to serve as the voice and the face of Camden?”

With the race behind her, Drakeford is reluctant to talk about the incident, but gives a knowing smile. Her friend Ms. Greene-Stuckey chimes in, “We know exactly what he was saying,” she said, drawing attention to the “face” comment.

Tellingly, Drakeford has never discussed the issue with Scully, even though she considers him a friend.

Scully, who is in his 70s and had moved to Camden from Los Angeles in 2005, says he has thought deeply about racial issues throughout his career in theater and when he was mayor of Camden. When USC and Ferillo approached him about the race and reconciliation initiative, he made sure that the town embraced the effort.

At first, in response to a reporter’s questions about his letter, he expresses exasperation at the thought that his words could have been called racist. “I don’t have to participate in fighting and I’m just not going to do it if that’s what this [reconciliation initiative] is going to be. I just can’t,” he says. But then he adds, “That’s maybe why we need the welcome table if she perceives that as race.”

A model from Mississippi

This small example of how race is a factor in the eyes of some and not others is common in small communities, says Susan Glisson, who has guided USC’s program and also helped start the Mississippi initiative it is modeled after. That model, developed by the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, sprung out of former President Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race talks in the late ’90s. In 2004, the institute’s efforts helped pressure authorities to bring charges and convict Edgar Ray Killen, a notorious Ku Klux Klan murderer.

Since then, some victories have been high-profile, like the University of Mississippi’s public efforts to reconcile its racial history – part of a nationwide trend of universities confronting their past association with slavery. Others have been quiet, such as groups building trust to speak to each other across racial lines.

“You have to change hearts and minds … in small groups. It’s tedious, long term work,” says Ms. Glisson, who now runs a consulting firm called Sustainable Equity that provides the community-based model for racial reconciliation. Glisson uses civil rights-era community organizing principles and methods, among others, to foster substantial dialogue among the groups she works with. She has found over the years that establishing from the very beginning that shame isn’t productive helps lead groups to get to know one another and want to tackle problems.

“We say at the very outset that this not blaming or shaming anybody,” Glisson said. “Nobody alive today invented racism.”

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