We once lived in Greenville, South Carolina. My wife has often said she would love to move back and my swing through the upstate was a bit of a nostalgic one. In retrospect, and upon my return, I found the town a great place to hang your hat.
I knew nothing of Greenville when my then employer sent us there to live, other than that it was the site of a presidential election flap. Then candidate Bush had spoken at Bob Jones University, a Republican powerhouse which happened to have an official school rule banning interracial dating. The school dropped the rule after all the uproar in the election but it would be fair to say we were a bit nervous when we arrived in town.
No one warned us to get out of town as we unloaded the truck and my stomach began to like living there. Greenville boasts a population of approximately 50,000 people and quite possibly 100,000 restaurants. If there is a chain eatery that exists, Greenville has two of them. Every building that ever gets put up for sale, or condemned, is quickly turned into a Barbeque joint. I discovered two of my most favorite ingestible substances in Greenville; Mutt’s sweet potato crumble (mentioned in a previous post) and Blenheim extra hot ginger ale (which will have it’s own post to come). I began to like this town.
Then there is main street.
Many small towns, or locales that are past their hey-day, attempt to create a revitalized downtown. They give it their best to create an area that will attract shoppers and diners on a weekend or evening. Few succeed, even fewer hit a home run like Greenville.
Main street is lined with trees and parking spaces. Even better, its lined with eclectic stores and shops. O.P. Taylor’s toy store with its toy soldiers standing guard at the door, sports a collection of dolls, planes, and unique gifts that you would be hard pressed to find in Toys R’ Us. The Mast General Store will help you find your obligatory palmetto tree logo’d gear, housewares, or vintage candies and soda. I suggest a cold bottle of Cheerwine, cherry soda. The list of stores, eateries, and galleries goes on, but is also supported by outdoor concerts every week in the summer, a street lighting parade every December, and little touches like life-size statues of mice placed randomly about town. It was nearly charming enough to make one swoon. But there is yin to this yang.
There was some press while we lived there about the county being one of, if not the only, locale that did not recognize Martin Luther King day. This was not a new controversy to me, I had lived other places arguing the same issue, and I thought little of it. That is till I went to the DMV to renew my driver’s license only to find it closed for Confederate Memorial Day. Either one in a vacuum could be explained away, but together they cast a shadow. With this in mind I began to notice other things as well.
The historical markers about town did not just pay homage to, but praised the ideals of the old south. Rebel flags flew on all sorts of structures and cars had stickers boasting “heritage, not hate.” There was no room for doubt where this city lie in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line and which side of the civil war still had the town’s support. One should be proud of one’s history and heritage right?
One Easter season Al Allen, a man from a previous generation, took pity on a young couple with no family in town, and invited us over for an Easter dinner. As we made our way down his stairs to where a larger than normal table was set up to accommodate us, we stepped into what could have been a Greenville County black history museum.
Every inch of wall space in the finished basement was covered with photographs, certificates, and various nostalgic paraphernalia. There was a young Al with a football team, with some man in a suit, with a group of men in suits, pictures of buildings I had never seen, and some pictures of buildings I had seen. The images were all in black and white, but the people were all black. He told me tales of when he met with so and so, or worked on a commission with you know who, none of who’s names I knew then or can remember now; except Sterling field.
I played rugby on Sterling Field three times a week. It was in the less attractive part of town, we had to share the field with local little league football teams, but it was the cheapest field around for a low budget sports club. “Used to be a great field,” Mr. Allen told me matter of factly. “Yeah? What happened to it?” I asked, not really caring as I was more interested in the images on the wall than his list of unrecognized names. His answer to my half hearted question got my full attention.
He told me how Sterling High school used to have the best football team around. It was the county’s black school and the pride of all who went there. The kids got a top notch education, the community loved the place, and to top it all off, they won football games. Then came integration.
Integration didn’t happen all at once. Like most things, first rumors started, then meetings were held, and finally maybe a couple years later, something would happen. It was the late 60’s and the writing was on the wall, the whole state knew it was coming. Word came that Sterling would not be closed, sending their students off to other schools, but rather white kids were to be sent there. This was a top performing school both in academics and on the field; it was going to be a great example and the Sterling community was guardedly excited. Then, the year before it was to integrate…
It burned to the ground.
It caught fire the night of prom and burned down to stubble. The school was never rebuilt, and in 1970 all the kids were bussed off to other schools.
As he told the story there was no anger or resentment in his voice. He was just an older guy telling a “back in the day” story. He moved right from that story to showing me his collection of R&B records. The rest of the night consisted of great food, his wife chiding him for trying to smoke in doors when a baby was in the house, and him later giving that baby a stuffed rabbit the size of a live horse. I’ve never been the best at keeping in touch and I have no idea how Al Allen is today. I wonder how he is, but I never do anything.
Travellers and visitors to Greenville would never know stories like this, and that is just fine. Everywhere has its ghosts; they need not be put on constant display. So if you ever find yourself half way between Atlanta and Charlotte, enjoy it. Visit the Reedy River with its stunning bridge, get some jewelry at the Beaded Frog, and as you look at the confederate flags. know that Sterling field used to be nice.