As I reflect on the 31 years of delving into the history of Orangeburg and its people with a concentration on African-Americans, I have always felt that I would one day have to write about the women of Orangeburg County. Both black and white women have played a vital role in the development of our great county. Bear in mind, women only received their right to participate in the electoral process in 1920, giving them full citizenship.
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Anne Crook, Liz Zimmerman Keitt, Ellen Chaplin, Margaret Williams, Cathy Hughes and many others have all delivered valuable contributions in making Orangeburg County what it is today. This is the first in a series that will highlight the women of Orangeburg County in an effort to recount the many contributions they have made.
Gloria Rackley was born to Harrison Blackwell and Lurline Thomas Blackwell on March 11, 1927, in Little Rock, S.C. in Dillon County. During the early years after her birth, she was entered into a state of South Carolina photo contest by her parents. In that contest, she won the honor as a "most beautiful baby."
Rackley's early education was supported by her parents with their strong attitude in the encouragement of educational excellence. That notion of excellence was filtered throughout her life. At this point, Dillon County was considered one of the richest tobacco-growing areas in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, yet being one of the poorest in education.
Her mother was an educator in the Little Rock Elementary School, her father was a barber and her grandfather was a Methodist minister in the county. This level of guidance provided the motivation for vision and success that they knew would be necessary to rise above the bleak educational opportunities that were being afforded to blacks, especially in a small county.
After completing her secondary education requirements in 1944, she leaped into higher education at the age of 16. Having been affiliated with the Methodist Church, she was bound for the Methodist-operated school of Claflin College in Orangeburg. Upon completing her requirements, she moved over to South Carolina State to round up her master's degree.
Rackley became employed in Orangeburg as a third-grade teacher at Whittaker. She became an outstanding teacher and was dearly loved by her students. At this point, Gloria also became entrenched in the "Orangeburg Freedom Movement." Growing in vision, strength and determination, she would soon have to face a test on what she really stood for as the Civil Rights Movement escalated across America. The description of this historical period has been detailed by Cecil Williams in his book "Out-of-the Box in Dixie."
Somehow, Gloria was destined to be a spokeswoman for civil justice and social reform and was dispatched to Orangeburg by way of divine intervention. The cadence in which she marched by was nowhere near the synchronization by black Orangeburg of that time. Though not spoken of as a "radical," she mirrored all of the necessary ingredients that would result in such labeling.
Historically, from 1869 to the present, Orangeburg has always figured in as the pivotal location in the movement for the education of black South Carolina. Proof of this acknowledgement is visible in the leadership of black higher education with Claflin and South Carolina State.
On March 14, 1888, The T&D reported: "A Distinguished Colored Man" - In accordance with the notice that appeared in last week's Times and Democrat Frederick Douglass, who is no doubt the most distinguished colored man in the world, made a short stop at the depot last Thursday morning." When Douglass made his "whistle stop" in Orangeburg, he addressed the students of Claflin, State and some of our white citizens with encouraging words. While on his tour around the country, he would tell his listeners, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Upon being questioned by a student on civil rights matters in America, he advised him to "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"
The T&D comment to this visit was: "His manner was pleasing and dignified, but his subject for the time was assuredly ill chosen."
Surely, Gloria Rackley must have studied Mr. Douglass at some point in her educational career. Her actions while living in Orangeburg certainly indicate her mission was far more than just receiving an education. Whether it was marriage or some other circumstance, the decision to stay in Orangeburg after graduation contributed greatly toward her becoming a leader in the reformation of segregated conditions within our society.
In 1961, she took on the Orangeburg Regional Hospital because they maintained separate facilities for whites and coloreds in the waiting room, wards and other rooms. She filed a federal lawsuit to break the back of segregation in the county-owned hospital. The following is a description of that case:
On Oct. 12, 1961, Jamelle Rackley, her 14-year-old daughter, was hurt in a playground accident. Taken to the hospital, she was treated for a dislocated bone in her finger. Gloria arrived at the emergency room just after the X-ray examination was finished. Told that her daughter would be given anesthesia and taken to surgery for treatment, she first waited in the emergency room and then was directed to a waiting room. Without explanation to her, she subsequently was shown to another waiting room. Presumably, it was the one generally used by the colored people. She did not enter the second room, but promptly returned and took her seat in the first. The chief of police and another officer, who apparently had meanwhile been called by the hospital, appeared and told her she would have to leave that room or be arrested. She then stepped out into the corridor, where in 10 or 15 minutes she met her daughter and left without further incident.
Two weeks later, Oct. 26, mother and daughter returned. The finger cast was removed in the presence of the mother and Jamelle taken to X-ray. Her mother followed to the door of the X-ray room and then entered the waiting room where she had stayed on her initial visit. A doctor came to the door, said her daughter was alone in X-ray, and requested that she join the girl. She answered she would wait where she was. Even when he stated that her daughter needed her, she still declined to move. Thereafter the doctor came back, told her Jamelle's treatment had been completed, that she was out of X-ray and the mother could go to her. To this she replied that her daughter would be able to find her.
The case was argued Sept. 24, 1962, and decided Nov. 9, 1962. This "agitation" as described by Frederick Douglass brought down the barriers of segregation at the Orangeburg Regional Hospital.
In May of 1962, the Orangeburg Branch of the NAACP under the leadership of the Rev. M.D. McCollum drafted a letter to then-Mayor S. Clyde Fair. It was dated May 2, 1962: "The accompanying resolution is, I believe, self-explanatory: Whereas: A decent respect for those human prerogatives which Americans cherish as rights and freedoms cannot be demonstrated by a show of racial prejudice and racial segregation in court rooms and other public places; and Whereas: Judge Fred Fanning did resort to oppressive, illegal measures to enforce racial segregation in his courtroom on the morning of April 24, 1962, in that he did order to be held in the city jail without charge or explanation Mrs. Gloria Rackley, who insisted upon the right of choice in selecting a seat in the courtroom."
In the fall of 1963, the "winds of change" blew once more. This time, the move for social and educational change was escalating to another level. Again, the "agitator" was Gloria Rackley. The Times and Democrat reported the following stories:
"Marshall Gives Statement on Teacher"
October 9, 1963
"Orangeburg City Schools Supt. Harris A. Marshall Tuesday issued this statement on the pending dismissal of a Negro teacher, Mrs. Gloria Rackley, a dismissal that brought a boycott by Negroes of their seven schools here and a march by 57 juveniles who were arrested on breach of peace charges:
The Negro schools of Orangeburg School District had only 25 per cent of the students enrolled to appear at school Tuesday, apparently because of a reaction to one of the faculty members being relieved of her responsibilities in the school."
"Negro Schools Closed; Juveniles Are Jailed"
October 9, 1963
"Negro public schools were closed in Orangeburg Tuesday and 57 juvenile students were jailed overnight because of protest demonstrations over the pending dismissal of a teacher.
"A classroom boycott of the seven Negro schools during the morning which led to the closing of the schools, was followed by an afternoon protest parade to show sympathy for Mrs. Gloria Rackley, a third grade teacher whose firing has been recommended because of her anti-segregation activity.
Their arrest came as Juvenile Court Judge P. Frank Haigler held closed court sessions for other juveniles among more than 1,300 Negroes arrested in previous anti-segregation Marches.
Mrs. Rackley has been arrested in demonstrations both here and in Charleston. Her latest arrest came Tuesday after she received Marshall's letter and Negro students had launched the sympathy boycott of six Negro public schools.
She was arrested when she tried to use a white washroom in the county courthouse building. Two years ago Mrs. Rackley brought a still pending suit which seeks to integrate facilities at the Orangeburg Regional Hospital."
The T&D also reported on Oct 11, 1963: One Negro woman, Mrs. Lizzie Matthews of Orangeburg was accused of organizing pickets outside the schools and was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Her bond was set at $6000." On the following day, two detectives arrived at Mrs. Matthews' house on the Belleville Road to arrest her. She was taken to jail and remained there for several days until the NAACP or her husband could pay the bail. Her husband ended up bailing her out. The charges were dropped after that.
Lizzie McFadden Matthews was born Jan. 28, 1930, in Manning. She was educated at the Riverside School and Wilkinson High School. Mrs. Matthews was married to James C. Matthews, who was the owner of Matthews Radio and TV Shop. Mrs. "Sweet" as she was known by her family and friends died Sept. 19, 2003.
During this period , Mrs. Rackley's daughter Lurma, a 14-year-old, was sentenced to seven years in the reform school for her participation in the Orangeburg Freedom Movement. Former federal Judge Matthew Perry, a law school graduate of South Carolina State University, was the attorney for Lurma. He appealed the sentence and was successful in obtaining her release. The actions taken by Mrs. Rackley by far placed her in the same class as that of Rosa Parks and South Carolina's own Septema Clark and Modjeska Simpkins. Around Orangeburg, the name ... Gloria Rackley ... was pretty much a "household name."
Gloria won her cases in Orangeburg and decided to relocate to Norfolk, Va. The mound of stress and pressure that she came under probably encouraged her to move. Some folks in Orangeburg, both black and white, men and women, did not take pleasure at the leadership that she demonstrated while living here. In an interview more than 20 years ago, one lady was asked about Gloria Rackley said: "I don't want to talk about her." Rackley's approach and beauty were criticized and talked about on both ends of the racial divide.
Special note: There were many blacks to participate in the "Movement" going to jail, being watered down by fire hoses, spat upon, losing jobs and businesses and then there were many who were afraid of backlash from their employers. Therefore, the sacrifices by the few opened benefits to all.
Depending on the socioeconomic status, the black families in Orangeburg had to make the decision to join in or sit back and wait and see how the "Movement" would pan out. The decision to protest or not placed many blacks "between a rock and a hard place." Do I stand up for what I think is right or do I make no waves and continue in supplying my family needs?
Through it all, Rackley's front-of-the-line style of leadership was supported by masses. Her mission was completed on the battlefield of the civil rights movement in Orangeburg. Then, she moved on.
After winning her cases, Gloria's next stop would be Norfolk, Va., where she was employed by Norfolk State College (today university) in the English Department (1964-1968), then served as a coordinator of black student affairs at American International College in Springfield, Mass. (1968-1970), from there to Atlanta, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1972 from Emory University, studying American studies. Other employment included Emory University and Clark Atlanta University for the next 20 years. She retired from Clark in 1994.
Since leaving South Carolina, she has been recognized on many stages for her active contributions to civil rights work. Gloria returned to Orangeburg in September 2004. The Times and Democrat reported on Sept. 26, 2004: "Freedom Fund Banquet welcomes past activist." At that event, she said, "What we did was necessary. When the "Movement" started, the principal said, ‘you must be careful and not be so conspicuous because you could be picked off.'" She replied, "Someone has to be conspicuous." Reflecting on her honor of being a "most beautiful baby," indeed, she would be conspicuous with the combination of being beautiful and educated.
Gloria and her daughters Jamelle Rackley-Riley and Lurma, were featured in The State newspaper on Feb. 12, 2007, during Black History Month.
On Dec. 7, 2010, one of the most notable and brave civil rights soldiers of the "Orangeburg Freedom Movement" was cradled by our Lord and Savior and taken away from her earthly duties. The name of Gloria Rackley Blackwell will forever be stamped in the history books of Orangeburg and our nation. Her stance on civil, social and educational matters cleared the path for the rights that we enjoy today.
Mrs. Rackley paid a great price in the "Orangeburg Freedom Movement." The sacrifices that she made with her children in tow can be looked upon as a true symbol of willpower and determination. Whatever her dispatch orders were, one thing is for sure: She effectively carried out her orders and was sent to the next base. God sent Abraham to do his works and many, many years later, he sent Gloria Rackley Blackwell.
n Richard Reid is of the president of the Orangeburg Historical and Genealogical Society. His mission is researching Orangeburg history, with emphasis on African-Americans.