Charleston activism is not a new concept in the Lowcountry with roots stemming from the Civil Rights Movement. On April 1, 1960, twenty-four students from Burke High School orchestrated the first sit-in in the historic district. The Kress building sit-in demonstrated a peaceful protest against segregated lunch counters. The black high school students sat at the whites-only counter where they were refused service and asked to leave. When Kress’ staff removed empty seats, poured ammonia on the bar surface, and called in a false bomb threat, the young protesters stood their ground and remained at the lunch counter. After five hours, Charleston police arrested the high school demonstrators for trespassing. NAACP leader Arthur Brown paid the students’ bail for their bravery to stand up against the city’s oppressive Jim Crow laws.
Modeled after the Greensboro sit-in earlier that year, the protest has shown how impactful the actions of students are to the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the limited resources for higher education in the Lowcountry, most of the work was done by high school students. Three more sit-in demonstrations took place at the Kress’ “five and dime” establishment later that summer in order to fight for equality for black Charlestonians. Notable Kress protesters Harvey Gantt, Minerva Brown, and Millicent Brown continued this activism work in the education field. Gantt became the first African American student admitted to Clemson University and the first mayor of Charlotte in 1983. His fight for equity for the African American community remains strong through the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. He believes philanthropy and supporting black culture by black individuals can help move progress forward within the community.
Sisters Minerva and Millicent Brown are the daughters of former NAACP president Arthur Brown. The passion for activism was instilled in the Browns at an early age as they were both involved in the Brown vs. Charleston County School District 20 case to integrate schools in the Lowcountry. The Court ruled in favor of the Browns stating segregation in Charleston schools were unlawful according to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Later that year, Millicent Brown became one of the first African American students to integrate Charleston schools at Rivers High School in 1963. She attended the College of Charleston and The Citadel to earn degrees in History and Education. She is now a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at Claflin University.
The power of local protest can ignite a change in the community. Organizations like Charleston Black Lives Matter, the Charleston branch of the NAACP, and the Charleston Activist Network, advocate for black Americans here and beyond. Using your voice to speak out against injustices you have noticed or experienced at work, in schools, or even in the community can continue the momentum of black advocacy. To learn how to get more involved with local activist groups, check out the following organizations to join the fight for equality.
International Women’s Day is a holiday observed on March 8th to bring awareness to the achievements and challenges of the women’s rights movement. Matters such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence against women and girls are often highlighted throughout the month. Along with this, female activists around the world fight to improve the quality of life for women. In Charleston, the local foundation IBU Movement hosted an event called the Fringe Revolution to showcase the stories of women artisans around the world through international cuisine, speeches, and a fashion showcase.
IBU Movement works with craftswomen around the world in order for women to generate a source of income based on their artisanal skills. This organization gives women from underrepresented cultures a platform for female empowerment through fashion. This year, IBU celebrated artisan women and their designs in honor of International Women’s Day. The global craftswomen noted the revolutionary change within their communities that has expanded beyond that. In a culturally rich city like Charleston, these women’s stories resonated with many attendees who had a strong appreciation for the customs and traditions of others. Downtown’s strong Gullah roots could feel akin to the representation of designers from various parts of Africa.
I had the privilege of walking in the Fringe Revolution fashion show, and it was an amazing experience. Exhibiting the beautiful work of Uzbekistan artisan women, I felt esteemed to share the stories of these women through their designs. A day full of female empowerment and celebration created an aspiration of change among women. The challenges and triumphs of women around the world are a testament to the fight for equity. In many cultures and societies, women do not receive the same opportunities for social, political, and economic success as men. IBU’s foundation created a platform for women around the world to stand on a united front to make a difference for women, by women.
To learn more about Charleston’s fashion hub for change, visit their website and check out their latest spring/summer collection available online or in-store downtown on King Street.
Mar 22 at 5 PM Septima Clark Auditorium Conversation with Patricia Williams Dockery, about her new play, Septima, now at Pure Theater. Panel moderated by Theater professors Nakeisha Daniels and Gary Marshall.
When thinking about black history, we often reflect on those who came before us. In a city like Charleston, the spirit of the Gullah community is alive through everyday customs and practices that you may not have even known had originated from the Gullah people.
Early Origins of the Gullah People
The Gullah people are descendants of West Africans slaves who were located in the lowcountry region of South Carolina including its sea islands. Historians have linked Charleston’s Gullah ancestry to Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, and Angola. The culture and language of the Gullah people is a blend of West African and European practices. The Gullah language has been inaccurately referred to as broken English when it is actually an English creole language. They use their language to pass down folk tales to younger generations and to sing spirituals in order to preserve the Gullah culture. Before, during, and after slavery, this group of people worked mostly off the coast of the state in fishing and agricultural industries. The climate and environment of South Carolina is similar to that of West Africa so the Gullah community was very knowledgable on land cultivation.
Food for the Soul and the South
The Gullah people are responsible for Charleston’s rich food history. The city is known famously for its shrimp and grits, rice pilaf, and lowcountry seafood boil. Many of these dishes were both affordable and able to feed a family for the week when made in one pot. Oysters and okra soup are both dishes Charlestonians began to eat after the Gullah people introduced it to the community. When dining in the downtown area, it is easy to point out which meals had some African influence with southern flare. Next time you are hungry, we recommend you try these black-owned Charleston Gullah restaurants: Hannibal’s Kitchen, Bertha’s Kitchen, East Side Soul Food, and My Three Sons of Charleston.
African Artistic Roots
Pieces of the Gullah culture can be seen thoughout Charleston. Sweetgrass creations are sold in the city market in the style of baskets, roses, bags, etc. by the locals. Originally used as functional baskets to carry items and to minnow rice, the artistic skill of the Gullah people is a hot commodity for tourists and locals to collect. Local sweetgrass artist, Corey Alston (pictured above) is known for his beautiful craftmanship and his work is featured in the Charleston City Market and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green, grew up on the sea islands and reflected his Gullah upbringing through his art. He is known in the creative world as an important artist of the Southern experience. In religious spaces, the ring shout is practiced among the Gullah people and many black Baptist and Methodist churches throughout the South. Dancing, call and response singing, and percussive hand clapping made up the praise and worship services which paid homage to their African origins.
Celebration and Culture
The Gullah culture is celebrated in numerous ways across the Lowcountry. Every May, the city of Beaufort hosts The Original Gullah Festival with a weekend full of food, art, and workshops. Also in May, the Gullah Gala “Charleston Renaissance; Birth of Art,” will be featuring music, fashion, and local businesses at Founders Hall in Charleston, SC.
The Charleston Gullah community has preserved their African heritage and customs more than any other African American group in the United States. Next time you find yourself in the Charleston area, take time to attend a Gullah tour, eat at local soul food restaurants, and speak to the Gullah people in the market to learn more about the rich black history here in the holy city.
Riley Center for Livable Communities (178 Lockwood Dr, Charleston, SC 29403)
The first membership meeting of the year will include a review of branch activities in 2022 and the presentation of the 2023 projected calendar. This will be followed by a community forum on Black Resistance History, Life and Culture – Making Connections. Participants will be asked to share ideas on how we can best explore the history of the struggle of Black Americans ‘to establish and maintain safe spaces, where Black life can be sustained, fortified and respected. Organizations are asked to share information on their programs and projects that can contribute to this year long focus on the topic of Black Resistance in its many forms
Our democracy depends on hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who act as poll workers to make sure elections run smoothly and everyone’s vote is counted. But during the pandemic, we’re facing an unprecedented shortage of poll workers that could mean closed polling places and long delays during the November election.
Thus, we urge folk to visit Power the Polls, an initiative to recruit poll workers. Sign up to Power the Polls today, to help make sure we have a safe, fair, efficient election for all voters.
Join us for a conversation with Dr. Maxine Smith on her book The Midnight Mayor of Charleston (The Henry Smith Story). Like the book and told in six chapters, this discussion series will take place at six different branches with each location mirroring a different chapter and featuring appearances from leaders and members of the community. Space will be limited. Call your branch to register for this event today!