Bill Clinton, left and Harold Rhodes, right.
EVERY FEBRUARY SINCE 1976, our nation has observed African-American History Month as a way to recognize inspiring leaders and signature events in the evolution of the country.
This month, in schools across the state, our children will read about icons like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr. and South Carolina’s own Mary McLeod Bethune, but for every one of these celebrated leaders, there are millions of everyday people who overcame racism and prejudice. I’d like to introduce you to two such South Carolinians I’ve been honored to know personally.
William “Bill” Clinton
I met Bill Clinton during the September Honor Flight. A native of Lancaster, Bill was drafted into the U.S. Army while at Benedict College and served in the Philippines under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In the Philippines, Bill says, the troops— African-Americans and whites—“ate, slept and prayed together.”
When the troop ship came back to America, and Bill disembarked in Seattle, he saw two signs: one saying “Colored on this side” and one saying “White on this side.”
“I thought we had paid the price,” he recalls. “Needless to say, the excitement about returning home was dampened.”
In 1947, Bill met and married his wife, Mildred. When Mildred became pregnant, he searched for a better job. He found it with an aerospace company in Buffalo, N.Y., and the young family became part of a postwar population shift that saw millions of African-Americans go north to seek economic opportunity and escape the Deep South. Bill worked hard, rose through the ranks, invested wisely in rental properties and enjoyed a full, prosperous life.
The power of “home,” or, in this case, South Carolina, maintained a strong tug on Bill and Mildred’s hearts. They came back to Lancaster in 2005, where they live on 20 acres with their daughter, Miriam, and their granddaughter, Ebony.
Harold Rhodes Jr.
Harold Rhodes has huge hands—ones calloused by laying brick from 1958 to 1996. He would routinely lay 800 bricks a day. Harold would lift and lay nearly 8 million bricks, weighing 39,520,000 pounds, during his career.
Bricklaying was not Harold’s first experience with hard working selfemployment. His community of Neyles Crossroads in Colleton County was close-knit. The baseball games were played in a field right behind Harold’s family’s house. “I used to sell drinking water to those boys playing ball, for five cents a quart,” he recalls. “My best days were the Fourth of July and Labor Day. I’d sell 40 quarts of water, make $2.”
Harold loved where he lived. Later, he and his wife, Juanita, bought 13 acres around the “old home place” that his ancestors, emancipated slaves, had purchased a century earlier. There, they raised seven children: a dentist, a CPA, a courier, a teacher, a police chief and two business executives, who became moms, dads and pillars of their communities across the Southeast. Their love of the home place now extends to their 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Harold’s community loves him. He was elected to the Coastal Electric Cooperative board in 1993 and continues to serve. Whenever you see him, he will be in a hat, usually cowboy, and beaming a smile. He calls me “young man.” If the day’s events have knocked me down a bit, Harold will pick me up with his sense of optimism, grounded not in simplicity but in his certainty that we can achieve almost anything—one brick at a time.
Fast forward to 2013
As I watched the swearing in for a second term of the nation’s first African-American president on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was moved by a portion of Myrlie Evers-Williams’ invocation: “We ask, too, Almighty, that where our paths seem blanketed by [throngs] of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance. And that the vision of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.”
And among those who came before us, thank you, Bill and Harold.