In the third installment of my tribute to Black History Month, I am going to focus my attention on African-Americans, who were the first of their race in Dillon County to achieve or accomplish something that was truly noteworthy and historical.
I chose Darius Leonard, as the face of this column today, because arguably, and more than any other person (other than Ben Bernanke who was reared in Dillon County), his celebrity status and accomplishment is truly astounding and unprecedented.
This young man from Lake View, who attended South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, was not only selected as the Rookie of the Year in the National Football League, but he was also a first team All Pro selection as a linebacker.
This dual feat, in my estimation, certainly certifies him for the honor of being the face of this piece today. Darius was not only the first African-American from Dillon County to be bestowed such an honor during his rookie year, but he was also the first from the state of South Carolina. We are going to continue to cite African-Americans from Dillon County, who made history as being the first of their race to occupy certain positions in four categories in the county.
There are two African- American men who made history in the field of education in Dillon County of whom many are not aware. In this very essential profession that is instrumental in helping to lay the foundation that every child’s life is built upon, two men had the unenviable distinction of being selected as the first African-Americans to serve in their capacity. First, Mr. D. C. Perry (who just happened to have been a relative of my father) was, according to the record and memory of most who can recall those days, the first African-American to serve on any of the school boards of Dillon County.
Mr. Perry, whose main profession was that of being an exterminator of pests, was a very devout man who endeavored to be involved in the activities of his church, as well as the African-American community.
He was perhaps the ideal choice for this position since he knew that change was coming for the schools of Dillon, due to the Civil Rights Movement and therefore, took a more conciliatory approach in his role as the first African-American person on the school board.
Finally, a man by the name of Mr. Robert L. McBryde, who had served as the beloved principal over Latimer School (grades 1st – 12th) for many years before integration, was appointed to be the Superintendent of the Latta School District. Mr. McBryde served in this position for quite a few years and made history as the first African-American to ever serve as a Superintendent of schools in Dillon County.
The field of law enforcement is one of the indispensable professions in any civilized culture or community, due to the fact that there will almost always be an element of criminals and violators of the law and of other peoples’ rights. Until the Prince of Peace comes, we are going to need those in law enforcement to deal with the criminal element.
Mr. Floyd Davis, a man who stood about six feet seven inches tall, was the first African -American to be employed by the Dillon Police Department, making him the first of his race to wear a law enforcement badge and uniform.
From the information that I have been able to collect, from a few of the older people who were acquainted with Mr. Davis back then, he shared with them (in anonymity) that though he was fully authorized to apprehend blacks who broke the law, under no circumstance (he pointedly stressed) was he permitted to arrest or use brute force on a white citizen, except they assaulted him first and endangered his life.
Like Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American to enter the major league of baseball, Mr. Floyd Davis had to endure the insults and taunts that were hurled at him by a few bigots and racists during this era when Jim Crow ruled.
Mr. Davis’ tenure as the first African-American law enforcement officer of the Dillon Police Department paved the way for Mr. Thomas (Pal) Dudley and Mr. Wilbert Carmichael, respectively. The Dillon County Sheriff’s Office, some years after the City Police Department’s groundbreaking decision to hire its first African -American, followed suit and hired Mr. Earlie Ray Vanderhall as its first deputy. Mr. Vanderhall, served for many years and established himself as, arguably, one of the most popular and effective law officers in the history of Dillon County.
His hiring opened the door for Mr. Andrew (D-Boy) Graves and many other African-Americans who now help to constitute at least one third of the County Sheriff’s Department’s crew of deputies.
Black Politicians Who Made History in Dillon County
African-Americans were not always office holders in the political structure of neither the city nor county of Dillon.
Today, we have quite a few African-Americans who hold positions in the County Council of Dillon, as well as positions in all of the three cities of the county, as councilmen.
I had to dig and make quite a few inquiries to find out who was the first African-American to hold a political office in either the city or county of Dillon.
Thanks to the aid of the editor of The Dillon Herald and the archives that they maintain about the history of Dillon County, the first African- American who held a political office in Dillon was discovered. His name was Neal Bethea. He was an alderman on the city government. An alderman is an elected officer who serves as an official on a city’s government. Today, we call them councilmen.
Many years later, after Mr. Neal Bethea made history as the first African-American to hold the office of alderman (councilmen) of the city of Dillon, Mr. Elwood McQueen made history (in the early seventies) when he was elected as the first African-American to hold the office of being a Dillon County councilman. He represented the South Dillon precinct (that Newtown was a part of) and has the greatest concentration of African-American voters in the county.
Having been born and reared in Newtown, I knew Mr. McQueen quite well. He was a very civic-minded man with a vision and compassion for the impoverished community and people of Newtown.
Regrettably, he was implicated, sentenced, and imprisoned, along with a few others for being a part of the infamous Dillon County Vote Buying Conspiracy.
I am in the number of those who believe that had it not been for this careless and self-incriminating misdeed, Elwood McQueen would perhaps have gone down in history as one of our greatest local politicians.
Conjectural Historical Firsts
Since we (African -Americans) did not keep good records back then and cannot accurately declare as a certainty about particular historical events and facts, we must employ conjecture when and wherever possible to fill in the lines of the narrative that are missing. For instance, I do not truly know who was the first African-American to cast their ballot in Dillon County; however, by all indications, I surmise that it could have been Mr. Rudy Lytch, who was our first and foremost Civil Rights activists during the waning days of Jim Crow and segregation.
There were many African- Americans who made history as the first of their race to accomplish something of importance in Dillon County that is yet to be discovered and unearthed from the ruins of yesterday. Be patient and prayerful for me, as I dig through the soil of the unforgotten. I will endeavor to excavate and exhume the remains of our treasured history before it is lost forever to us and the generations yet to be born.