Charleston’s Finest

For the South Carolina Primary, the schedule of events was much different than my previous two Wake the Vote adventures. After an early five a.m. departure, a small group of us made it to South Carolina around 8 this morning. I spent my morning working at Jeb Bush’s campaign headquarters in Columbia.

My time with Jeb wasn’t the greatest. We were assigned to phone banking, and I spent the hour talking to people who simply weren’t Jeb supporters. There was yelling, accusations of inconsideration, complaints about repetitive phone calls, and much, much more. Even as a strong liberal I couldn’t help but feel bad for Jeb. Luckily, our team was soon rescued to tag-along a surprise trip to Charleston to watch Professor Harris-Perry interview Elizabeth and Albert Alston.

That all took place around 11:30 am this morning, and now we’re nearing 4 p.m. We’re currently heading back to Columbia from Charleston. The short, three hour trip was truly a breath of fresh air, the kind you get after spending time in the company of good people. In Charleston, we headed to a historical, residential community and met with the Alstons to prepare for the interview. As we waited outside, we were passed by multiple horse-drawn-carriage tours with guides discussing the historical district as things ranging from public housing to the site of thousands of buried bodies. This was a peculiar introduction to Charleston, but soon enough we headed inside. During her interview, Dr. Harris-Perry talked to the Alstons about their experience of the Emmanuel 9 massacre, their opinions of the presidential elections, and current stars like Beyoncé and Cam Newton. Despite older age, Mrs. Alston didn’t miss a beat. She told us exactly how she felt about Beyoncé’s “Formation,” her love for Jay Z and Solange, and her disappointment in the nation’s treatment towards Cam Newton. Listening to the passion and alacrity in both of their answers coupled with their love for Charleston was inspiring. If you told Mr. Alston where you were from, he could name four or five people from the same area, and you just knew he would remember you too. Mrs. Alston showed us her impressive collection of newspaper article clippings that featured her during her time as chairperson of the local schoolboard, and others covering important events in Charleston from decades back. She told us of her position as historian in Mother Emmanuel, and her training as a historian, lawyer, and educator. It was during this time I got a chance to ask her about Mother Emmanuel, the Emmanuel shooting, and her church’s transition.

Mrs. Alston went into detail about the 247 days that have passed since the Charleston Massacre. She discussed the many visitors the church has had in the last 7 months, folks from countries like Germany, Damascus, and Egypt, as well as politicians and entertainers like Pharrell, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Eric Holder. She talked about the recent installation of a new pastor, and expressed comfort in this new step for Mother Emmanuel. As Mrs. Alston continued, she showed us many newspaper articles confirming her accounts, much to our disbelief. She had collected so much, so carefully, and it was amazing to see her in-house archives. We listened eagerly to this insider scoop on Charleston and Mother Emmanuel, and then Mrs. Alston returned to July 17, 2015, the day of the Emmanuel 9 Massacre.

She described the night of the shooting, and told us how she had been in bed by 8 as usual, completely unaware of the horrors happening nearby. Typically, she visited church daily, so many were concerned she may have been lost in the tragedy that night when they could not reach her that night. As she continued, Mrs. Alston jokingly told us about her new cellphone, the “I5,” and how she was happy to finally have something to text and use the Bible app with. Then she shared her reason for getting the phone; to make sure she was able to record the policemen that she believed would have harassed her and kept her from her church in its time of need. The story started as a personal account of the shooting, and as it continued you could feel her pain, both personal and for her church. This last admission about the “I5” purchase broke my heart. We had celebrated with her as she told us of the progress of Mother Emmanuel, but in this moment I was near tears. As I write this now, I can’t help but be thankful that such a genuine, caring couple is there to heal with the Mother Emmanuel congregation. The couple has their roots in Charleston, and it shows in their profound knowledge and care for the city and their church.

The saving comfort to this assortment of emotions was Mrs. Alston’s chronicles. She counted every day that passed since the shooting, and in order record her life if anything were to happen, she kept a journal with each page title including the date and number of days passed since the shooting. Before we left, she allowed me and two other students to write in this journal. The honor of being asked to claim a space in the extensive history collected in that journal was abundant, and I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to Mrs. Alston to know her career and life’s work had inspired me so much in the course of one short afternoon. I couldn’t forget the painful memories she had shared, nor the less enjoyable parts of the day, but being able to leave a part of myself with such a powerful woman was enough to help me increasingly reflect on all of the positive parts. This was my first trip to Charleston, and I’ll never forget all that I learned.

As we left the Alstons home that day, I left with much to think about. Unfortunately this was interrupted as our car drove past nearby gentrification – the Shops at Charleston, filled with high-end shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Kate Spade New York. Seeing clear gentrification so near to the Alston’s 150+ year-old neighborhood was frustrating, and it left me with even more mixed emotions. I reveled in the life and gusto in the Alstons, yet I was continually aggravated at the tours, gentrification, and stories of the city around them.   The day was both refreshing and exhausting, one perfect for ample reflection.

Chizoba Ukairo


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