Now the shoe's on the other foot.
It's a new generation's turn to contribute as much to the American dream as did Beaufort cobbler James W. Richardson, who died Wednesday at age 91.
Here was a man who was denied the right to vote after serving his country in World War II but waited on the courthouse steps day after day until he finally got the voting credential he so valued. Ultimately, Richardson served 34 years on the Beaufort County voter registration board, much of it as chairman. In the old days, he took the voter registration book out into this rural county because so many could not make it to Beaufort to register. More recently, when people could register almost anywhere, he still insisted on voter-registration drives.
Richardson was born in rural Colleton County, where formal education consisted of one-room schoolhouses open only three months of the year. But he became a successful businessman, running Tom's Shoe Shop for most of its 50 years in business. The edgy smell of glue and shoe polish filled the old building that once stood at the corner of West and Port Republic streets, where Richardson learned the trade from his brother, Tom. Richardson was known as a hard worker, like his brother, Prince, who cut hair next door, and brother, Jacob, who was principal at Robert Smalls High School.
"We used to call him 'the sole saver,' " said Agnes Garvin, the retired county elections director who worked in the elections office for more than 30 years. Newcomers to politics knew they needed to go down to Tom's Shoe Shop and talk to the sole saver.
Five years ago, it was discovered that the second floor over the shoe shop had been the antebellum law office of Edmund Rhett, one of the fathers of the secession movement leading to the Civil War. Ironically, the Richardsons had bought the building from a black teacher at Mather School created to educate freed slaves, according to Gloria Singleton's new book, "Beaufort Through the Ages." And for many years, that upstairs was like the voter registration office, where the secessionist firebrand would have found a black man toiling to enfranchise all citizens, black and white, with the right to vote.
Because of the Rhett connection, that portion of the building was spared when Tom's Shoe Shop was leveled in 2006. At the time, Beekman Webb, himself an expert at restoring old buildings, made a compelling case that the wrong thing was being saved.
"I'm not convinced that we need a museum to celebrate a 'champion for the secession of South Carolina,' " he wrote to The Beaufort Gazette."In an era of segregation and national turmoil over race, Tom's Shoe Shop provided all of Beaufort's children -- and adults, too -- with an example of blacks and whites working together with mutual respect. Now that's history that's truly relevant."
Richardson died at the Veterans Victory House Nursing Home in Walterboro, not far from where he was born. Garvin told me that last fall, Richardson called on his caregivers to bring him an absentee ballot. He was proud to cast his last vote for a black man who was elected president of the United States of America.