Jacob Martin thought he would live his dream in Bluffton — twice.
He thought that when he got a degree from Allen University in Columbia in 1950. He thought he would be the rare African-American male teacher to come back to the small town where he grew up on Calhoun Street.
He thought it again when he retired from jobs up North and moved home in 1979 with his wife, Ida.
But when he was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday at a banquet sponsored jointly by the Bluffton and Hilton Head Island Martin Luther King Jr. celebration committees, Martin said:
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“My dream was fulfilled by someone else.”
Another big award last weekend went to the Heritage Library Foundation on Hilton Head Island. It was presented the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award on Monday for its ancestral studies of the island and region.
But to the full house at the big banquet held in Sun City, called the Black Excellence Ball, Martin explained what he meant about his dream.
He said when he came back home to Bluffton, he found many others already working to expand the horizons of young people well beyond the limits of his own childhood.
Martin cited educators Ernestine Jones, who died in July; Mary O. Pinckney Merrick; George and Sherry Westerfield; school board members John Rogers and Laura Bush; and Barbara Nielsen, who would later be elected state superintendent of education.
They were offering what he could only dream of as the sixth of 11 children born 90 years ago to Aletha and John Henry Martin, a merchant seaman.
Public school for black children ended after the seventh grade when Martin was a child.
So young John Jacob packed his things and became a boarding student at the Port Royal Agriculture and Industrial School near today’s Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort.
He went on to Allen University and married Ida, known best locally for starting Bluffton Self Help in their garage at age 60. He got all his credentials to come home and teach. That was the only profession available to him here, he said.
Martin also applied to the University of South Carolina School of Law, but could not enroll because of his color. He said then-Gov. Strom Thurmond made a big deal out of keeping the law school all-white. And due to the hubbub, he said, teaching jobs were not offered to him either.
“I never wanted to leave Bluffton,” Martin said Tuesday at his brick home on Bruin Street, where he places an American flag on a stand outside the front door each day.
“This is my oyster.”
But he had to go to Detroit, working for a while in the Chrysler DeSoto plant. In 1952, he joined the Detroit Police Department, where he became commander of the largest precinct, covering 26 square miles and 210,000 people, including five City Council members. He had a staff of more than 600. All of those numbers dwarfed the home town he still yearned for.
Martin got a master’s degree and ended up commanding one of five divisions in the department, before retiring and becoming a police chief in Illinois, then working in corporate security for the Bendix Corporation.
Back home in Bluffton, Martin became a substitute teacher, then full-time teacher, then a central office administrator in Beaufort before retiring again in 1992.
Martin’s younger brother, Daniel E. Martin, became a circuit court judge in South Carolina, and Daniel E. Martin Jr. is a Family Court judge.
The significance was lost on no one when Daniel Martin III stepped to the podium Saturday to introduce Jacob Martin at the banquet. Daniel III got his law degree from the University of South Carolina last month.
By a Facebook photograph of Daniel III in his cap and gown, he wrote: “It’s deeper than just a degree.”
Jacob Martin has two messages for today’s society.
“I’ve followed this all my life, and we’re doing pretty good (racially) in Bluffton,” he said, “and on the national scale.”
He remembers when people of color could not register to vote, had to sit in the back of the Greyhound bus and rode in separate coaches on the train that stopped in Pritchardville.
“We persevered,” Martin said. “We’re not in bad shape. We’re making progress.”
His other message is national.
“People who think we’re going back to the 1940s or 1950s are whistling ‘Dixie,’” he said. “It’s up to us — to leaders — to understand that. ‘Make America great again,’ ‘take our country back,’ all that kind of foolishness is a bunch of nonsense. Take our country back from who?”
He said he hears a lot of “dog whistles” today, but they are not strong enough to “destroy all the things that make us strong — the courts, free press, the FBI, the CIA.
“They are not going to undermine our nation. It’s not going to work. It can’t work. I’m not worried about it.”
Now an old man, Martin can say: “My dreams have been fulfilled.
“Bluffton turned out to be what I dreamed it would be, the way we can educate our kids and the educational opportunity available now.”