David Lauderdale

Muriel Smalley teaches lessons of life, community

Muriel Smalley
Muriel Smalley Submitted photo

Muriel Washington Smalley left the circle unbroken when she passed away Wednesday in her Beaufort home.

Her son, Dwayne, was by her side because he had left a good job in Columbia several years ago to come home when his mother got sick.

Many years earlier, Muriel did the same thing when her father got sick.

In that way, death brought life full circle.

It's a circle of caring that once ringed the city's Northwest Quadrant, where both mother and son were reared at the corner of Charles and Duke streets.

Dwayne says he was lucky to find a good job at CareCore National in Bluffton and luckier still that he could work from his mother's home for much of the past year.

But there was never a question about what he should do. That had been imprinted on him since he was born in 1962 to an air-station Marine father and a school principal mother.

He knew from birth that his mother had come home from the Chicago area, where she worked in a hospital after getting a degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. That's lofty stuff for a woman born in 1926 in the segregated South. Dwayne always knew she got there through a circle of caring.

Muriel was raised largely by her sister Frances, because her mother died before she ever knew her. Her father, Sam Washington, built a store where downstairs he sold ice, coal, kindling wood and such, and the family lived upstairs.

Muriel was influenced by her godmother, Florence Garrett, an educator whose home at the corner of Duke and Wilmington streets served as a boarding house for young female teachers. She also was influenced by Robbie Wright, one of the first African Americans to serve on the school board.

Dwayne watched as his mother, in turn, looked after Mrs. Garrett and Frances in their dying years.

Muriel raised Dwayne by herself. And she helped raise a lot of other children, first as a teacher at the all-black Robert Smalls school, then as the first principal of Robert Smalls Junior High. She finished her career as a central-office administrator, then worked with the children of migrant workers.

She was a leader in First African Baptist Church's restoration of its historic building. She served on the city's Historic Review Board and other boards.

Muriel's brick home sits on the same lot as "Mr. Sam's" store, which burned in the 1950s. She was proud of a painting of what she thought the white frame building looked like, but she always longed for a photograph of it. Also hung on her wall were the knitting tools her father used to sew shrimp nets.

Dwayne returned to this home when his spunky mother had her first bout with cancer. He quickly became president of the Northwest Quadrant Neighborhood Association, wrestling with myriad problems.

But as he buries his mother in the Mercy Cemetery, Dwayne Smalley can take comfort that he, too, left the circle unbroken.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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