Behind-the-scenes fighter 'Baby' Washington the soul of racial struggle

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Lawrence "Baby" Washington

PICASA

The big guns were blazing at the funeral of Deacon Lawrence "Baby" Washington Sr. of the Seabrook community of northern Beaufort County.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and retired state Sen. McKinley Washington of Edisto Island spoke, along with community leaders Samuel Murray, Gerald Dawson, James Moss, Wallace Brown, Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., Leroy Gilliard and Herman Gaither.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and former sheriff Carl McLeod were in the crowd that came in a steady rain Thursday morning to fill the Bethesda Christian Fellowship on St. Helena Island.

Barbara Holmes got everybody going with her mighty solo of "O, How Precious."

And the remains of a 90-year-old "man's man" rested in a flag-draped casket, white gloves matching his white hair.

Baby Washington's life is one that today's youth struggle to imagine. It was shaped by the Jim Crow laws and customs that were designed to leave people like him with no opportunity.

But he died a wealthy man, driving a black Jaguar and wearing a three-piece suit even to go to the bank.

He died a powerful man. He was so active behind the scenes in Democratic politics statewide that he was sometimes called "the Godfather." McKinley Washington said he dared not come to Beaufort County without visiting Baby Washington.

Still, most people in the county did not know him, or his dogged lifelong pursuit for civil rights, and economic and political advancement for minorities.

Baby Washington was lauded for never forgetting the little man, providing for his family, organizing people, and helping others to get involved and get ahead.

They said he thirsted for politics, just as he did the deer hunt. He thrived on debate. He hated to be told "no." He showed no fear. And he believed in protecting yourself -- with heavy guns.

Entrepreneur

Washington came into the world the smaller of twin boys, so his mother called him "Baby."

He was born near the Whale Branch River in 1923 to Sinclair and Florence Manigo-Washington. He worked on a truck farm in Lobeco, earning 30 cents for a 10-hour day. She was a midwife.

Baby's formal schooling ended in the eighth or ninth grade at the Port Royal Agricultural and Industrial School, which brought education in the style of the Tuskegee Institute to impoverished African Americans in this county's rural reaches.

He served his country in World War II and came home a painter. He got involved in the veterans program at the Penn School, right up the street from the setting of his 2 1/2-hour funeral. At Penn, he met teacher Mamie Lee Grant, who would be his wife and mother of seven children.

For 35 years, Baby Washington's day job was painting and driving trucks as a civil service employee on Parris Island. But his string of personal businesses at one time employed 60 people.

His janitorial service had contracts all over the Lowcountry, cleaning the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services clinics, public schools, Laurel Bay military schools, and private businesses.

He had a fish market, a landscaping company, a liquor store, a firm that provided guards for gated communities on Hilton Head, Washington Bail Bonds, and a shrimp boat named the African Queen.

He was a deacon in the Second Gethsemane Baptist Church built by his grandfather. And people beat a path to his door, seeking jobs, business advice, loans, help with government programs, even marriage counseling.

'The melody'

People listened when Baby Washington spoke, but his generation had to be heard over the din of the Ku Klux Klan. In response, he studied the issues, the law, and political strategies. He worked to get people informed, get them registered to vote and get them to the polls.

Richard W. "Dick" Riley of Greenville, governor from 1979 to 1987 and U.S. Secretary of Education from 1993 to 2001, wrote to the family last week: " 'Baby' Washington was a beloved friend of mine. He was a leader in both my campaigns for governor and I tried to serve in such a way that he would be proud -- with liberty and justice and a quality education for all."

Washington believed that districts carved to produce minority majorities were the only way blacks could gain seats in the halls of power.

Washington's generation is best symbolized by a sign that hung on the wall of Tom's Shoe Shop, run by James Richardson on Port Republic Street. It said, "Hands that once picked cotton can now pick a president."

But as he faded from the scene in a much different era, Baby Washington worried that black citizens were going backward -- not getting involved in public policy, not running for office, not getting elected, losing land, and losing the influence that was so painfully achieved.

Beaufort County Council member Gerald Dawkins, whose father, Horace, was a close friend of Baby Washington and who now represents the Seabrook district, said that when age slowed the steps of Baby Washington, the community had a void.

"The void still exists," he said, adding that others must step up with equal zeal.

Thomas Barnwell of Hilton Head said a training program is needed. "As we leave this building, there will be a vacuum," he said.

Before the entourage left for the Beaufort National Cemetery, retired state senator and Presbyterian minister McKinley Washington said the moment reminded him of the story of a famous singer backed up by a pump organ.

"Baby Washington wasn't out front, but he was pumping, pumping, pumping," McKinley Washington said. "Yes, we sing. But the pumper was Baby Washington.

"The song has finally ended, but the melody must continue."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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