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Earl Middleton dies - Death of businessman, leader ends an era

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Earl Middleton's business partner says that in the last few years of his life, she often heard him tell people, "I'm just trying to get to heaven."

On Tuesday, reacting to the death of her longtime friend and colleague, Joy Barnes said, "Today, I'm sure he's there."

Middleton, 88, died Tuesday morning after a short period of declining health. Funeral plans will be announced by Bythewood Funeral Home.

For Orangeburg, the death of Middleton, noted civil rights leader, former state lawmaker and successful businessman, marks the end of an era.

"I go all the way back with Earl," said retired Times and Democrat Publisher Dean Livingston. "The whole community was a lot closer back in those days … I was one of the first to know he was going to run against the Senator."

After 10 years in the House, Middleton, the county's first black elected representative since Reconstruction, challenged veteran Sen. Marshall Williams in 1984. The campaign was the only time Williams had opposition.

"He always referred to Marshall as 'The Senator.' He said it was a privilege for him to run and he ran his campaign that way," Livingston said. "It was an awesomely clean campaign, possibly the cleanest political race in Orangeburg County."

Middleton was born in Orangeburg on Feb. 18, 1919, the youngest of Samuel and Ella Middleton's six children. He received his elementary, high school and college education at Claflin University, graduating in 1942 with a B.A. in sociology. At Claflin, he became a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. and he served as class president for each of his four years in college.

He trained as a Tuskegee Airmen Cadet and soloed at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. He completed his four years of service to his country during World War II, with rotations in the 4th Aviation Squadron, the 129th Port Battalion and overseas duty in the Pacific Theatre.

Returning to his hometown in 1946, he began his business as a barber with the late Eugene Montgomery and gradually started selling insurance from his rented Amelia Street shop. Several years later, real estate brokerage was added.

Middleton's entrepreneurial achievements were recognized by The Wall Street Journal with a front page story, May 29, 1992, in large part because his racially integrated staff mirrored the demographics of the Orangeburg marketplace. With the hiring of Barnes, a white woman who simply walked in and asked for a job, the first racially integrated real estate agency in Orangeburg was created. The firm later became the first black-owned real estate agency to affiliate with Coldwell Banker.

Middleton himself attributed his business success in part to his "willingness to look beyond racial boundaries" and his "knack for getting along with people."

"I think one of the greatest gifts that God gave me is the ability to get along with everybody — with all people," he said. "And, with that, I can accept people as individuals. If people would do that, everybody would benefit from it. "It makes you live better."

Middleton has also said that, by giving the best of yourself, you feel better about the world.

"And, from my point of view, the world is a pretty good place," he said. "But it can always be made better by people loving one another and helping out their fellow men."

In 1974, Middleton was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives. A year later, the Orangeburg County Association of Realtors voted him Realtor of the Year.

He served as chairman of Claflin University's first Capital Campaign in 1989, raising $4.3 million over three years.

Middleton served for 10 years on the board that oversees Middleton Place, a plantation near Charleston that is now a major tourist attraction. His grandfather, Abram, was a slave there until the end of the Civil War in 1865. An historical marker was dedicated to the family during the 2004 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston.

Middleton received the Edisto Award, the municipal equivalent of the Order of the Palmetto, in 2000. Then, in 2001, he was named Orangeburg's "Citizen of the Year" during the Kiwanis Club's annual banquet.

Middleton was married to the late Bernice Bryant for 50 years and they were the parents of three children, Anita, Kenneth and Karen.

By choice, Middleton continued to work every day at the businesses he founded, researched his family history and completed a forthcoming book, "Knowing Who I Am: A Black Entrepreneur's Memoir of Struggle and Victory in the American South."

A life-long member of Trinity United Methodist Church and the NAACP, he lived in his home on Earl Middleton Boulevard, the highway that was dedicated to him.

T&D Government Writer Tucker Lyon can be reached at tlyon@timesanddemocrat.com and 803-533-5545.

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