Keep at it. Those few words from his maternal grandmother have been a driving force behind the work ethic of the longest-serving African American in the state General Assembly.
As the former state Sen. John W. Matthews Jr. prepares for the next phase of his life in retirement, the 79-year-old has not forgotten her.
“She taught me a valuable lesson. She used to give all these chores to do in the afternoon when I got home. I’d be telling her, ‘Grandma, that’s too much,’ and she would just give me a nickel, pat me on the head and say, ‘Keep at it.’ If you keep at it, you’ll get it done. Sooner or later, you’ll see the difference,” Matthews said.
“In this business, you’ve got to be able to get something done,” he said.
After having served in the state House of Representatives from 1975 to 1984 and then in the S.C. Senate from 1985 until he retired in 2020, Matthews found a formula for getting things done for his constituents over a 46-year span.
His penchant for public service started early.
‘It was a difficult period’
Matthews was born on April 21, 1940, to the late John Wesley Sr. and the late Victoria (Williams) Matthews in Bowman.
He recalls a delightful childhood, but one not without its challenges.
“My childhood was a good childhood, but it was a difficult period. That was in the ‘40s and the early ‘50s. It was at the time that we were operating our public school system under separate but equal. We had Jim Crow’s laws in place. So that’s where my life started, but it was also the time when African Americans began to push back and say enough is enough,” Matthews said.
“The civil rights movement had begun. A lot of African Americans who went in the military were coming back home after World War II and after being in a foreign country fighting for freedom of others and they themselves were not free, they began to challenge the system,” he said.
He recalled the landmark civil rights case Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and was therefore unconstitutional.
“A lawsuit was filed in Clarendon County on the separate-but-equal issue on public schools, which was finally resolved in 1954. My mother was a school teacher, and all the teachers in Elloree got fired because they joined the NAACP. So this is the era in which I was growing up,” he said.
“All of my schooling was in the Town of Bowman, but here’s the big issue. Our issues and time to go in schools were dictated by crops and the farm. The Black community value was on the here and now and not necessarily the future. So when crops needed to be harvested, you had to stay home and get the crop out. So crops had a higher priority than education at that point,” Matthews said.
The veteran legislator began attending then-South Carolina State College in 1960, with African-Americans seeing education “as the gateway to the American Dream,” he said.
“Education was critically important because they saw that as the way out to a better life for their children. So education mattered,” but so did the fight for justice and equality, Matthews said.
He added, “The civil rights movement had just started. Kids began to push back against discrimination, push back against segregation. I was at school at that basic time. Because I didn’t live on campus and was commuting, my college life was not as involved as it maybe should have been.
“I’d go there in the morning and go to class, get in the car and come back home, but that was a period of change when the African American community began to push back, and push back hard.”
It was also a time when he joined the NAACP, becoming youth chapter president under Q.J. Smith.
“He was our president and the leader in our community for civil rights and a leader in this county. People like Q.J., J.I. Washington, Pete Butler and other folks were very active in our community at that time,” Matthews said.
“I thought at that time that the NAACP was the premier organization in the community ... and we started the Voter Rights Project. So that really began to gel the Black community,” he said.
Matthews said Bloody Sunday, which occurred following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a turning point in civil rights activism.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, was the site of the conflict of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, when police attacked demonstrators with horses, billy clubs and tear gas as they were attempting to march to the state capital city of Montgomery.
“The event that really gelled us was when they passed the civil rights bill in 1964, but the one that really organized the county and the community was Bloody Sunday. That really galvanized the African American community at that point for people to say that they weren’t going to take that anymore. So they began to challenge the system,” Matthews said.
‘I wanted to be a businessman’
A member of the S.C. State class of 1966, Matthews had gotten married as a sophomore at age 20 to the late Geraldine Hilliard Matthews of Santee.
“I dropped out for about a year and a half until my wife finished. When she graduated, then I went back. Somebody had to pay the bills,” Matthews said.
He was certified in elementary education, science and agriculture education upon graduating from college and began teaching science at Sandridge Elementary School in Berkeley County.
“That was my first job. My second job was in Berkeley County down in Huger at Cainhoy High School, where I taught agriculture and science for about three or four years. I left Cainhoy and was offered three jobs that summer. One was at Roberts High School. I decided to come to Roberts High School in Holly Hill,” Matthews said.
“That was during integration. I worked at Holly Hill High in the morning and then Roberts High in the afternoon,” said the longtime legislator, who served as a vocational agriculture teacher before eventually becoming the vocational department director at Roberts High School.
Matthews went on to earn his certification in welding after attending Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in 1970 and earning his advanced certification in welding from Lincoln Electrical Institute in Cleveland in 1972.
“When I got out of Lincoln Electrical Institute, I was offered a job out in Portland, Oregon, in shipbuilding. It paid about time-and-a-half more money than I was making. I started to go, but my wife ... said she wasn’t going. So I decided I wasn’t going,” Matthews said.
He went on to serve as principal of Gaillard Elementary School in Eutawville for nearly 11 years before entering the business world as president of a cable TV franchise, Zenith and Triangle Cablevisions.
Matthews and his franchise partners built out three cable systems in Bowman, Branchville and Santee, along with parts of Elloree and the area around Eutawville.
“Back then, most people didn’t have anything but the antenna. They could only get about three channels: ABC, NBC and CBS and probably ETV. Then when the cable became available, you went from three channels to about 35 or 36 channels. So it was a different world,” he said.
Matthews added, “I did that for not quite 11 years, and then at that point we sold the company. That was a new experience, but I learned a lot. When I got out college, business was always something I wanted to do because my parents were in business.
“The opportunities for African Americans at that time in terms of the future were kind of limited. Teaching was a highly respectable career at that time,” he said, so that’s why he started there.
His business acumen was not stolen.
“My father was an entrepreneur. He did a lot of things. First he was United Methodist preacher, but he owned a barber shop, a soda shop and a Black theatre. There were only two theaters in Orangeburg County for African Americans. There was one on the Railroad Corner and the one we had in Bowman. My uncle ran a grits mill in the same building, but it was downstairs. So when I was growing up, I wanted to be a businessman. I thought that was the way to go,” Matthews said.
His mother ran the family’s soda shop, with the whole business enterprise being a way to create value and wealth.
“If you go into business, you have to take some risks. When I went from the school system to the cable company, I took risks on all my savings, all my retirement, plus whatever I had,” he said, noting that the cable company was eventually sold.
‘We’ve decided you’re it’
Matthews had always been a community worker, but in the background was where he preferred to stay with voter registration and similar work. His foray into politics was not something he had planned.
“Back in the late '50s and early '60s, the movement in Orangeburg County was on voter registration and voter participation. I participated in that heavily and was working in different communities along with the leaders. When the single-member district came open, they started looking for somebody to run,” he said.
Matthews was one of 13 Black members of the state House of Representatives elected in 1975 because of the redrawing of district lines to increase the number of districts with a high percentage of African Americans.
He said the NAACP’s leaders at the time approached him when he was home one weekend to care for his mother.
“My brothers and I would rotate on the weekends. It was my weekend to stay with my mother. I was over there. I pulled up in my yard and about five community leaders were there. I thought they were coming to see my mother. They told me, ‘Look here, you’ve got to run. We’ve decided you’re it.’ That’s the long and short of the story,” he said.
Matthews had his reservations.
“I was always a community worker. I did the voter registration behind-the-scenes stuff. Former council member Fred Mack and I used to be the runners for the countywide eastern Orangeburg County political leadership. But when the seat came open, I was really going to support my friend Fred Mack. He later became a councilman, but his job would not allow him to run. So I decided I would,” he said.
Matthews, who went on to be elected to the Senate in 1984, shared the story of how he came to run for the state House and Senate seat at the same time.
“I was in the House at that time, and the filing for the House had closed. I had already filed and didn’t have any opposition. Then the courts ruled that the Senate had to do single-member districts. So I filed for the Senate seat. It was too late to get somebody else to run for the House seat. So at that time I ran for the House and the Senate at the same time. Fortunately, I won them. So when I won both of them, then I resigned from the House and kept the Senate seat and the rest is history,” he said.
Matthews said the late Sen. Marshall Williams was a key source of support in his political career.
“One of the persons that was most helpful to me when I got elected was Marshall Williams. He kind of took me under his wing and gave me guidance and counseling. I’ll be ever so grateful for his advice and support,” he said.
‘You’ve got to understand system’
Matthews learned the value of building coalitions – and a rational argument – while in the state legislature.
“You’ve got to understand the system, know how the system works and then learn how you build coalitions across race and party lines. If you do that consistently over a period of years, you get a little reputation for being for certain things. So you’re much more able to get some things done,” he said.
“Working in the political arena, you’ve got to understand how the system works, you’ve got to know who is important within the system, and then you got to know how to build your case and present what I call rational arguments on why things should happen,” Matthews said.
The legislator reflected on the words of his businessman father.
“He used to say, ‘If my neighbor is worse off, then I’m worse off. If my neighbor is better off, then I’m better off.’ It doesn’t matter who he is, what color they are, all of us are better off when we live in communities where people are better off.
“So you’ve got to be able to frame your position and frame your argument to appeal to a broader base. If you can do that, then you got a chance at making some changes. Then you’ve got to be consistent on what your agenda is. When I got elected, I made three things my top priority. I call them the three E’s: education, economic development and environment. I tried to stay consistently correct with those three,” Matthews said.
Matthews, whose Senate District 39 included portions of Berkeley, Calhoun, Colleton, Dorchester and Orangeburg counties, said he is pleased with Orangeburg County’s growth.
“When I got elected in the House, Orangeburg County was the fourth-poorest county in the state. Today, we have leapfrogged over eight counties. Now we’re still poor, but we’re not as poor as we used to be, and we’re headed in the right direction. We have had a good economic development commission; county council has worked with them,” he said.
Matthews said a long-term strategic growth plan included the consolidation of school districts and improved infrastructure with the help of capital sales tax funds.
“The platform for growth is built on your ability to provide water and sewer. We had a good development commission, and then they implemented the 1-cent sales tax to be able to fund it. So that’s kind of helped Orangeburg County kind of leapfrog over those other eight counties that we were behind and now are ahead,” he said, noting that work must continue.
“I’ve seen substantial growth in this district. This is a huge district, but the largest single investment in this district has been Volvo, and that’s made some changes. The economy is moving up from Charleston. I think Orangeburg County has a bright future because of our geographic location. I know we’re going to continue to grow because of where we are,” he said.
Matthews said Orangeburg County’s geographic location will be a big key to its success.
“The largest concentration of wealth in the world is east of the Mississippi. That’s where most companies want to be, that’s where they want to get their product to. ... The three fastest-growing areas in the Southeast are Jacksonville, Atlanta and Charlotte. If you were to draw a circle around those three, Orangeburg County is the center of the doughnut” and is logistically critical when it comes to moving product, he said.
He continued, “We got three major highways. We got I-95 serving the North-South market, we got I-26 serving the East-West market and we got two railroads serving two different markets. So you can serve six different markets coming out of Orangeburg, especially if you’re the center of the doughnut because we can move your product. The cost of moving your product is real costly. So Orangeburg has a bright future if we just stay the course.”
‘You have to change with the times’
Matthews has three brothers and one sister, Bessie, 95. His oldest brother, Roosevelt, is a former agriculture teacher. Another brother, Booker T., resides in New York and was an entrepreneur.
“He ran his own barbershop, had some apartment buildings and a store. My brother that I’m next to, Joshua, took over my daddy’s business. He was a contractor,” Matthews said.
His beloved wife, Geraldine, died on Christmas Day in 2015 at age 75.
“I think three things happened to me in my life that changed my projection. I think the first decision I made that changed that was I decided to go to college. I think the second one is when I married Geraldine Matthews. The third one is when I decided to run for public office. So I think those three decisions changed my trajectory in life. My wife and I were married for 54 years. To be honest, 54 years, 10 months and three days,” he said.
Matthews and Geraldine had five children: Cynthia John, Michael Andre, Stephanie Renata, Jonn Wesley III and Brian DeReef. All three of his sons have served in the U.S military, while Cynthia works at the Department of Social Services in Orangeburg and Stephanie has been employed with NASA for nearly 30 years.
Matthews said he always taught his children that hard work pays off.
“I always tell young people that the number one issue in my community when I was growing up was race. Today that’s kind of changed. Even through race still matters, poverty is the number one problem in our communities today.
“I think the value of an education in this COVID environment has demonstrated the value of having the skills you need to compete in the 21st century. I’m pretty sure that if you can’t work from home today, then you’re in trouble,” he said.
He said the educational divide must be addressed.
“The reason I said that poverty matters more even though race is very important is because if a kid today grows up in a home with less, lives in a community with less, comes to school with less, they will always do less. So if you can flip that around and put that same kid in a home with more, a community with more and send them to school with more, they will always do better.
“That’s why, in my opinion, you’ve got to look at education from a holistic point of view. You just can’t fix education isolated by itself. You’ve got to really fix the community. So if you can fix the community, your educational outcomes will be better, educational attainment will be higher,” Matthews said.
The legislator said there is a skills divide in America that must be filled.
“That’s why I supported free tech. It was the first thing I thought that would really help our community. We were projecting that we were going to get at least about 500 more kids going to tech than we have today. It has not turned out that way yet, but I think that we’ll eventually get there,” he said.
“I think we’re also going to have to wind up doing year-round schools. All kids can learn, but some of them need more time on task. So kids who show up to school with less, you’ve got to offer them somewhat of a different environment, a little bit more time on task,” Matthews said.
The longtime legislator has also learned a few things from his legislative colleagues, including veteran state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.
“Time has changed. So you have to change with the times. If you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll get what you’ve been getting. So you’ve got to change. That’s the one thing I learned from her,” he said.
Matthews added, “There used to be an old saying they used to say around my hometown: Think big, work hard, have a dream and believe you can fly and you’ll get there. If you think big, you work hard, you plan, you get the skill set, you’ll go further in life,” he said, along with putting God first in your life.
Matthews, a member of Pineville United Methodist Church in the Bowman community, said his life will now involve less work as he looks forward to newly elected District 39 Sen. Vernon Stephens charting his own course.
“I’ve been offered three positions after I quit. I said, ‘Man, that’s the reason I quit. It’s over for me. That’s it.’ My life has been dictated by schedules and alarm clocks for almost 50 years,” he said.
Matthews added, “I was given an opportunity as a young man that went far beyond my dream and my imagination. I thought it was time to give somebody else that chance to have that same opportunity. So we’ve got a new senator now, Vernon Stephens. I think he’ll do a good job. That’s the journey of life. At some point you come to an end. You’ve got to recognize when it’s time to move on,” he said.
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