February — Black History Month — is the perfect time to look back at how African-Americans made their mark and paved new roads for America.
There are numerous events and exhibits across South Carolina to celebrate the month. From Columbia’s Benedict College Harambee Festival and Black History Heritage Ball to Hilton Head’s Gullah Celebration, there are a number of ways to celebrate Black history.
South Carolina had a major role in that history, from the Slave Market in Charleston to black trailblazers such as Matilda Arabella Evans and Harvey B. Gantt.
Here are just a few key Black figures who made their mark on American history:
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1. Robert Smalls
Born: April 5, 1839. Beaufort, S.C.
Died: Feb. 23, 1915
Both Robert Smalls and Harriet Tubman helped influence the Port Royal Experiment, the system created by Northerners to allow freed slaves to create an independent political and economic system. When the Union Army took over the Beaufort area during the Civil War, it created Mitchelville — a self-governing town on Hilton Head populated by freed slaves — and Penn Center a place where teachers from the North began to teach ex-slaves.
Smalls’ story is inspirational because, despite having few resources, he was able to escape slavery and take his family and 12 other slaves to freedom. He accomplished this by negotiating with his owner to begin keeping part of the wages he earned when he was allowed to work in Charleston.
After he saved enough, he planned a boat heist that would make history books. Smalls was able to work his way up to become wheelman of a Confederate cotton steamer named The Planter. Smalls pretended to be the captain of the ship and sailed the ship out of the Charleston harbour down through the St. Helena Sound and to the Beaufort River, with his family and friends in tow.
The story of The Planter’s theft impressed the Union Navy, and Smalls went on to become a sea captain. His career didn’t end at sea, though.
In the late 1870s to mid 1880s, Smalls entered politics and was elected to serve both in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
2. & 3. Septima Poinsette Clark & Esau Jenkins
Born: Septima Poinsette Clark, May 3, 1898. Charleston, S.C.; Esau Jenkins, July 3, 1910. Johns Island, S.C.
Died: Septima Poinsette Clark, Dec. 15, 1987; Esau Jenkins, Oct. 1972
These two South Carolina natives played a key role in helping adult African-Americans learn how to read and write.
Clark, born in Charleston, was also known as the “queen mother” of the Civil Rights movement, reported TIME.
When Clark couldn’t teach, despite having her license, because of segregation, she traveled door to door in black neighborhoods to have parents sign a petition allowing their children to be taught by black teachers, TIME wrote.
She as well as Esau Jenkins and her cousin Bernice Robinson helped establish what were known as “Citizenship Schools” across the South. These schools helped fill the gap left by segregated schools despite sometimes violent pushback by Southern whites.
When Clark and Jenkins started a citizenship school in Tennessee, the state tried to shut down it down. The state sometimes succeeded, charging teachers with alcohol possession in an effort to close down the schools, reported TIME.
Despite this, Clark’s “Citizenship School” model was duplicated across the South and helped educate many. Clark was able to continue her work in Georgia with help from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
4. Harvey B. Gantt
Born: Jan. 14, 1943. Charleston, S.C.
Gantt is famous in both Carolinas for being the first black student at Clemson University and the first black mayor of Charlotte.
Gantt’s legacy lives on, along with other important black figures’ history, at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.
Gantt studied architecture and graduated with honors in 1965, according to the Arts + Culture center’s site. He had to fight his way into the S.C. university, though. He first attended Iowa State University in 1961, but after a year returned to South Carolina.
When he returned to the Palmetto State, he sued Clemson, and on Jan. 16, 1963, entered the racially segregated university. In 1970, he received a Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and had a long career in architecture and politics.
He served on the Charlotte City Council from 1974 to 1983, after the previous and only black council member, Fred Alexander, moved on to serve in the state Senate. He was later elected as the first African-American mayor for two terms from 1983 to 1987. He won with 52 percent of the overall vote and 36 percent of the white vote, according to Black Past.
To this day, Gantt manages his own architectural firm advocated for black voters He was later elected as the first African-American mayor for two terms from 1983 to 1987.
5. Matilda Arabella Evans
Born: May 13, 1872, Aiken, S.C.
Died: Nov. 17, 1935
Evans was a trailblazer in the medical field in the late 1800s. The National Institute of Health says Evans was the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in South Carolina.
While she graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1897, she returned to her home state to work out of her home. During her stay in Columbia, she also analyzed black school children’s health and founded an examination program within the S.C. public school system.
She practiced gynecology, obstetrics and surgery there until 1901 when she established the Taylor Lane Hospital, the first black hospital in Columbia. She brought her passion for medicine to education and journalism. She published a weekly newspaper — The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina — according to Historic Columbia
You can visit her home in Columbia off Taylor Street.
6. Harriet Tubman
Born: 1820, Dorchester County, MD
Died: March 10, 1913
You’ve probably heard this inspiring woman’s name multiple times inin history class. She is known to have saved hundreds — most agree on 300 — of slaves by helping them escape along the Underground Railroad Trail. These trails ran from Southern states such as Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina to the North.
Tubman’s contribution to South Carolina’s Black History is known as the Combahee River Raid. The raid happened on the river north of St. Helena Island and was a success thanks to Tubman’s on the-ground-knowledge of the area.
She learned the location of Rebel torpedoes planted along the river from slaves willing to trade information for freedom, according to reference center BlackPast. Tubman was able to steered Union ships away from the trap and continue rescuing slaves along the river.
It wasn’t easy for Tubman, though. New York Times reported. Tubman had difficulty communicating with the Gullah people, who only spoke their distinctive language. She wrote, “They wasn’t my people... because I didn’t know any more about them than [a white officer] did.”
But the raid still ended in success and she, the Union and hundreds of slaves were able to travel North to aide the Union Army.
Who is the most important historical Black figure in South Carolina to you? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to share whose story inspires you or fill out the Google Form below.