By Sheryl Estrada
“Honestly, race relations in Charleston are hard to describe because in white circles, Black people honestly don’t have a place,” Allison* said. “The Black population of Charleston has halved in the last 30 years, gentrification is rampant.”
Allison is a 21-year-old Black female student and a native of Charleston, S.C., who has just completed her third year at a university in New Jersey.
She had a candid conversation with DiversityInc about race relations in Charleston and discussed the mass murder of nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17.
Allison is the youngest in a family of seven. She grew up in downtown Charleston, like her father, and her mother is from a different area of the South.
Her parents often shared with their children stories about life during times of segregation.
“Though [my parents] are fairly young and were born after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the South took the sentence ‘with all necessary haste’ to mean as slowly as possible,” Allison said.
However, her parents did not think their children would experience the same kind of racism they did. They championed education in their household. Allison attended good private schools in Charleston. She now attends a prestigious college in the northeast.
She chose to attend a school far away from home because, as she said, “there wasn’t real steps forward in my life I could take in a place that was so stilted, whose solution to the racial tension was to move people out so there wouldn’t be racial tension at all.”
But on the evening of June 17, the awful legacy of white supremacy in her home state, which her parents tried to shield her from, manifested itself yet again. Racist Dylann Roof, with the intentions of starting a race war, shot and killed nine members of the beloved and historic Black church Mother Emanuel.
Allison first learned about the shooting via text message.
“My white best friend from home texted me at 11:45 p.m. at night,” she said. “She was the first to let me know. My mother face-timed me, while my sisters sent me links to Twitter feeds and live news-streaming sites.”
Allison said she and her family knew some of the victims.
“Mother Emanuel is nothing short of a beacon,” she said. “Everyone sees it, knows it. The symbolism for the Black community of Charleston of marring this place of worship, is just, almost unparalleled.”
Allison explained the history of the church, which is intertwined with her family and upbringing:
Denmark Vessy founded it. Coretta Scott King led a protest that ended there. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. My father was baptized there. Countless people have been married and buried there. It has been burned and attacked and still it stands.
One of the victims was State Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also the pastor of church. Pinckney, who took office in 1996, was the youngest Black person in South Carolina’s history to be elected to the state legislature. He was then elected to the State Senate in 2000.
“I would say that Rev. Pinckney was both well known and inspirational,” Allison said. “His place on the State Senate was important, his faith deep and durable and his intelligence sparkling.”
Being so far away from home, Allison uses social media to see what’s happening in Charleston. However, she said the postings on Facebook by locals and news outlets paint a “picture of harmony and peace,” a narrative that’s being orchestrated.
Allison explained her sister and many others are complaining about the “audacity” of white South Carolinians to post pictures of rallies and prayer meetings “where white people and Black people hold hands and make statuses and updates to the effect of ‘See Baltimore? See Ferguson? This is how you respond to racial violence!’ As if to say, ‘Look at how well behaved our Black people are!’”
She is bothered by how some whites are grading the responses of Black people grieving. Allison also said there are rampant conversations about race culture in South Carolina that haven’t happened until now.
“I think I’m feeling the sort of fatigue that comes from disgust and awe,” she said. “But not necessarily the feeling that comes from surprise. Racial tension is everywhere and sometimes as a Black member of the Charleston community it weighs heavily on your thoughts.”
Allison shared that while she may get dirty looks from old racists warning her to stay away, it’s the actions of young racists in her hometown that hurt the most.
“Oftentimes they don’t know they are racist and don’t care to acknowledge their bias,” she said. “They don’t get why calling me ‘exotic’ or ‘sassy’ is uncomfortable or that inquiring whether or not my father is in the home is literally just insulting. And when you try to explain it the response is often, ‘Whoa, there buddy! I’m not a racist!’ When the ugly truth is that they are — just a well meaning one.”
Following the mass murder at Mother Emanuel, the debate to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds is now at the forefront. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced Monday that she will call on state lawmakers to move the Confederate flag from state grounds. Lawmakers are expected to debate the issue and vote in the coming weeks.
“[South Carolina] makes it clear its interests as it flies the Confederate flag,” Allison said. “I’ll remind everyone that this is nothing new. This flag as been flying for hundreds of years. It’s everywhere.”
“Sometimes you feel threatened by it,” she went on. “Other times you forget it’s there, it’s so prominent. It doesn’t always mean the person flying it is racist, but seeing it puts the thought in the back of your mind. Individuals fly the confederate flag all the time and sometimes you come to the shock that your white friends are racist.”
However, Allison has no intention of letting racism impede upon her life.
“Racism leaks over and clouds vision, but no it doesn’t stop you from living your best life, from, as my mom would say, ‘Dancing in the rain, even if it’s lightning two miles away.’”
She also wants to make clear that Charleston means a lot to her.
“I feel warm and fuzzy at the thought of going to the pineapple fountain, and beaches on Kiawah,” she said. “I think about the friendships my parents and I have made with people of different backgrounds than us; I think about some of my white teachers in high school who were amazing educators and pushed me to be the best that I can be.”
*Allison is the name used in the story to protect the identity of the interviewee.