Growing up in the segregated South was a disheartening time for African-Americans on many fronts. Instead, one Mount Pleasant man chose to churn the racial hardships of the time into motivation for a better tomorrow. He now helps historically preserve the past.
Six years ago, the Town of Mount Pleasant formally started celebrating Black History Month. The annual celebration has been recognized nationally since 1976. That’s nearly a 40-year gap.
The town’s Historical Commission was organized in 1989. In 2014, the proposal of having a Black History Month in Mount Pleasant was pitched by Charleston native Walter Brown Jr.
“I imagine no one thought of it because when I mentioned it, it was readily accepted and the town sponsored it,” Brown said. “I got all the support in the world from the Town of Mount Pleasant.”
Brown joined the Historical Commission for a total of six years in which he served two four-year terms from 2009-2015, according to Mount Pleasant Historical Commission chair Rick Gutowski. He was the first African-American to serve on the Historical Commission and on the Planning and Zoning Commission.
To this day, Brown credits former Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails for asking him to return for a second term. When he returned, he assumed the roles of vice-chair and chair.
Now, even at 86-years-old and a father to three, Brown still serves as an advisor. Although he no longer serves on the Historical Commission, he has volunteered the past six years helping put on the town’s Black History Month events.
“It’s stuff that I enjoy, I don’t look for any accolades. I mean somebody’s got to do it and I hope I can pass the torch on to somebody else when I expire,” Brown said.
“His knowledge and expertise has been invaluable to the Historical Commission,” said town planner Kate Dolan.
In December 2017, Brown was bestowed with “The Mount Pleasant Cresco Historical Stewardship Award.” The award recognizes an individual that has done exemplary work in studying, preserving, restoring or promoting the history of Mount Pleasant. He was the award’s second recipient.
“I look at that award as keeping the Afro-American community abreast of what’s going on in the Town of Mount Pleasant,” Brown said.
He has played a membership role in several affiliations including Avery Institute, Benevolent Brotherhood Society of Mount Pleasant and Friendship A.M.E. Church. He’s been involved with most of these groups since as long as he’s been married, going on 55 years.
“My philosophy is try to always give back to your community wherever you are. Try to leave things better than what they were when you became involved,” Brown said.
For Brown, his story began on Columbus Street in downtown Charleston. As a kid, he contracted polio prior to the development of the Salk vaccine and was forced to walk with a limp.
He was later dealt the harsh reality of a segregated education. A product of the Jim Crow Era in the 1940s, he attended an all-black grade school on Bull Street called Avery High School amidst the time of War World II.
Avery was founded in 1865 as the first accredited secondary school for African-Americans in Charleston. It would later be restored and adopted by the College of Charleston for research as the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture.
His sophomore year of high school he worked a paper route where he delivered more than 400 newspapers for the News and Courier and The Evening Post every morning before he went to school. He attests he was never late for school.
Brown graduated from Avery in 1951. Three years later Charleston County closed the school’s doors, coinciding with Brown vs. Board of Education’s decision, citing financial reasons.
He then enrolled at South Carolina State University where he majored in elementary education. A few years after graduation, Brown decided to return home to teach at an all-black school named Buist Public School. The only elementary school for African-American children in the city’s segregated system.
Soon thereafter he was transferred to James Simons Elementary. He admitted it was intimidating being one of the first African-American males to teach at a formerly all-white school that had just recently been integrated.
“I didn’t have any discrimination. If there was discrimination I couldn’t detect it,” Brown said.
He was steadfast about never changing his teaching style regardless of a student’s skin color. Brown did recall a few instances of outside pressure from parents but no racially-charged threats.
For 38 years, Walter Brown served as an educator in both Charleston County Schools and Columbia. He retired as the director of Federal Programs for the Charleston County School District. In retirement, he decided to dedicate more time to helping preserve the historicism of his town.
When he arrived to the Historical Commission, his main focus was assembling historical markers. Similar to the marker erected at on the grounds of Laing High School last month.
He said the trickiest part of the marker process is shortening the text to get it to fit on the plaque’s limited space. The inscription process can take up to several months.
Brown was responsible for approximately 10 markers such as one commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on Bennett Street. Another on the corner of Bennet and Venning Street where there used to be an orphanage for destitute children. Along with other historical African-American stomping grounds like Riverside Beach and White’s Paradise.
Riverside Beach opened in 1930 as the first black beach in the area, according to the Historical Commission. Developed by the Cooper River Bridge Company, the site featured a dance pavilion, boardwalk, bath house, playground and ball fields. African-American musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and B.B. King performed at Riverside Beach. Charleston County sold the beach to developers in 1975, according to the Historical Commission.
White’s Paradise, located on Riverside Beach Road (now 5th Avenue), was the first black motel and nightclub East of the Cooper, according to the Historical Commission. Singer James Brown once performed there. The motel and club, operated from 1943 to 1975. Both buildings were demolished in 1993. View a complete list of the Town’s Historical Markers online at tompsc.com/238/Historical-Markers.
Each day when Brown leaves his Mount Pleasant residence to run an errand, he still envisions landmarks of old and how things used to be. He is also refreshingly reminded how much the community still acknowledges its roots despite its growth in density.