The Order of the Palmetto is considered the highest civilian honor in South Carolina. Recently, Mount Pleasant resident Michael Allen was awarded the state’s lifetime achievement for his civic trailblazing efforts and progressiveness in the African American community.
Over the past 50 years, dating back to its origin in 1971, more than 3,500 citizens have received the Order of the Palmetto. Allen’s name is now inscribed on that list along with other notable individuals such as singer James Brown, author Pat Conroy, tap dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, General William Westmoreland, Civil Rights activist Septima Clark and the “Unknown Confederate Soldier.”
In February, U.S. House Majority Whip Congressman James Clyburn wrote a letter of nomination on Allen’s behalf to Gov. Henry McMaster. Allen is the most recent East Cooper recipient, following former Isle of Palms City Administrator Linda Tucker who received the honor in November 2018.
“Governor, Michael Allen’s activities and involvement in the preservation and interpretation of the history of South Carolina are too numerous to mention,” Clyburn wrote in the letter. “He has been a strong advocate for innovative projects which have engaged new audiences in understanding South Carolina and African American history.”
A native of Kingstree, Allen graduated from Kingstree Senior High in 1978 and later moved to Sullivan’s Island in the 80s. He was a product of the 1982 class of South Carolina State College, where he developed a passion for history education.
His love for history, more specifically the Reconstruction Era, fevered his public career with the National Park Service which began in 1980.
“I was fortunate enough to have parents who were civic-minded individuals. Without them I wouldn’t be who I am now,” Allen said. Looking back now he realizes that he had been on the same track since he was a youngster.
During his 37-year career at the National Park Service, Allen served as a park ranger, education specialist as well as the community partnership specialist for The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor/Fort Sumter National Monument and Charles Pinckney National Historic Site. The reason he got into the park service was to be a community activist and that’s just what he did.
Allen confessed he has a deep-seeded interest in our nation’s spiritual growth as it relates to the history and culture. Particularly African American heritage due to his deep Gullah roots. His life motto that he applies day in and day out is, “to understand the present and move toward the future, you must first know and accept your past.”
“Sometimes I look at modern situations through the lens of history. It gives me some kind of comfort to understand that people endured and made it through then therefore we can do it now,” Allen continued. “If you don’t know the journey from the past, you may not be fully equipped for the journey for the present or the future.”
He would go on to play a critical role in local African American civics by joining the National Park Service’s Gullah-Geechee Special Resource Study. He examined the feasibility and suitability of establishing educational centers as well as determining ways to increase interpretation and preservation of this valuable culture. The study was presented to Congress in May 2005. In October 2006, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act was passed, which established the first and only African American Heritage Area in the country.
In October 2007, Allen played an instrumental role in the creation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission. His primary responsibility was to ensure that this new National Heritage Area become a reality in an effort to provide hope, opportunity and support to grassroot organizations and the wider Gullah Geechee Community.
“It may have been a dream in the minds of many people but we’re living it now,” Allen said. “It was a simple spark, a simple conversation, a simple opportunity that now has long-lasting effects.”
Two years later, Allen was promoted to director of the Gullah Geechee Corridor. He was involved in designing exhibits and presenting interpretive programs that involve local communities and history. These programs were designed to attract non-traditional audiences to National Park Service and other historic sites. He helped erect the “African Importation Historic Marker” on Sullivan’s Island in 1999 and in 2008 he assisted the Toni Morrison Society in establishing a “Bench by the Road” at Fort Moultrie to memorialize the islands participation in the African slave trade.
“These were placed here for a purpose, as a benchmark that people arrived to (Sullivan’s) in chains in slave capacity, but that did not deter them from the greatness they had brought to America,” Allen said.
This marker was monumental for the sake of African American historicism, but even more so for Allen whose called Sullivan’s Island home for the greater half of his life. He said it’s empowering to accomplish such a fear in contrast to the hardships of slavery his ancestors endured. In 2009, he was instrumental in unveiling “African Passages” an exhibit which highlights the African arrival, presence and contributions to Gullah Geechee Culture and American society through the eyes of Africans and African American who passed through Sullivan’s Island on their way to be enslaved in the Charleston and beyond.
Allen also has been involved in a number of other innovative projects designed to engage new audiences in understanding and appreciating African and American history. He is a founding board member of the International African American Museum, which is slated to open in Charleston in 2020.
In addition to his association with the International African American Museum, he was a founding member and former vice president and current member of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission. He was the past treasurer for the South Carolina Council for African American studies. He also served as a board member for a number of local and statewide organizations such as, The African American Historical Alliance, Habitat for Humanities East Cooper and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association.
“I’m a person that looks at transition but also continuity. I realized that whatever I can to bring a generation on to support others that can come behind me and do greater things,” Allen said.
When asked how far along he believes the African American community has progressed in the Lowcountry, Allen admitted it’s a complex question that requires an even more complex answer. From his observations, he emphasized the quality of education across districts poses as an impediment. Although he says it’s not something that can’t be overcome by once again learning from our past to persevere in the future.
Allen declined to name names of those who’ve shaped him both professionally and as a person because there were too many that he didn’t want to accidentally leave out. However, he dedicated his Order of the Palmetto award to the 25th anniversary of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission.