South Carolina State University, the people of the 6th Congressional District and South Carolina have lost one of their strongest supporters.
Dr. Emily England Clyburn, known to many as “Ms. Emily,” wife of nearly six decades to U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn, is being remembered with home-going services today in Charleston. She died this past Thursday at age 80.
A Moncks Corner native known far beyond the limits of Orangeburg, Emily Clyburn’s ties here are significant. She and the congressman met while both were students at S.C. State as the civil rights movement was unfolding in earnest. Clyburn often told the story of how they met.
Both were in jail after being arrested while protesting segregation at an Orangeburg drug store counter. The congressman said romance wasn't on his mind as he was let out — he was hungry and just wanted something to eat.
Emily Clyburn walked up to him with a hamburger. As he reached for it, she tore it, keeping half for herself.
"I tell everybody she got me for half a hamburger," James Clyburn said. They married just over a year later and were together since.
Emily Clyburn also is credited by the congressman with launching his political career. According to James Clyburn’s memoir, “Blessed Experiences,” she told him after a 1971 speech, “I just wonder when you are going to stop talking about South Carolina’s problems and do something about them.”
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He has been “doing something” ever since.
Emily Clyburn built her own legacy as well.
She spent 30 years as a medical librarian at the Charleston Naval Base and Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
She established the Emily England Clyburn Honors Scholarship at S.C. State, which honored her with doctorate of human letters in 2010.
Along with the congressman, her philanthropic giving included raising more than $1.7 million since 2005 for the James E. and Emily E. Clyburn Endowment for Archives and History at S.C. State.
And in 2018, the pedestrian bridge over Chestnut Street leading to the S.C. State campus was named in her honor.
Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, introduced the legislation to rename the bridge. In October at the dedication ceremony, his words were a fitting tribute to Emily Clyburn: "I am blessed to have the opportunity to be able to name the bridge in honor of someone who has paved the way for future generations in our community and our state. Dr. Clyburn's contributions will forever remain not only in the history books of South Carolina, but also in the hearts, minds and lives that will be touched and impacted by her work."
At the same ceremony, S.C. State President James Clark lauded Emily Clyburn's contributions to the university and referred to her family as "the first family of this university."
While Congressman Clyburn’s contributions to the university, state and nation will continue, he will miss Dr. Emily Clyburn as the matriarch of the “first family” and a guiding force. So many others will miss her too.