Elsie Smalls, who delivered last night’s third annual Martin Luther King Jr. lecture at Springfield College, was born in Kingstree, a tiny town in Williamsburg County SC. She grew up in a small home with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a small living area. The front of the house consisted of a window next to a door—the bottom half metal, the top screened. A set of stairs with three wooden steps led to the door. The limbs of droopy willow trees provided shade over the house. Inside, there was no plumbing. There was not heating, no air conditioning to cool the steamy South Carolina summers.
She was the seventh of eight children, and all eight had to work in the heat, swallowing their own sweat for just 60 dollars per month. Smalls and her family worked as sharecroppers.
The family was provided land and seed with the promise that the landowner would receive half of the crop. Smalls and her family would purchase food on credit, hoping they would earn enough to pay back their debt because they did not have enough money to pay up front. Cropping required doggedness. It required physical strength, patience and focus. When the work was finally completed, the family would attempt the sell their crop. The attempts always came up short. Smalls’ mother would cry and worry that her family would not survive, and sometimes it felt as if it wouldn’t.
However, Smalls preaches an important message—a message that she proved is possible: your beginning does not dictate your destiny or ending.
On Tuesday, Smalls, the Assistant Dean/Campus Director of Springfield College’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies in Charleston, SC, stood in front of a crowd in Fuller Arts Center of Springfield College and delivered a powerful speech. It recognized that the ideas preached by Martin Luther King Jr. at the campus of Springfield College in 1964 are still alive and relevant today.
“The purpose is to give folks a glimpse of a world they may have never known existed,” Smalls said before the lecture.
Part of that world included Smalls watching other children play in the streets, running around free of any responsibilities while she planted crops with her father. Part of that world was watching her father yell, become angry and drink because he could not support his 10-person family. Part of that world was trying to understand why this was happening. However, the entire world along with everyone in it orbits around an idea, a concept, something completely intangible: racism.
“My father demanded respect and regard within his household,” Smalls said during her speech. “He always found something for us to do. I didn’t understand why at first, but he instilled a sense of drive and determination.”
Smalls became the first member of her family to obtain advanced degrees. However, she wasn’t the first to attend college. Elsie’s older sister, was approaching graduation from her predominantly black high school. The school Elsie attended did not have a white teacher until she was in middle school. One day, Mr. Glover, the guidance counselor sat down with Elsie’s sister and asked what her plans upon graduation were. The young woman didn’t know how to respond. There was no money for college, and attending higher education was never even a discussion in the Smalls home. She ultimately decided she was going to step out on faith and go to college anyway.
“There was some anger from my father, but I know now that it was fear,” Elsie said.
Elsie’s sister attended South Carolina State University, the only public historically black college/university in the state. Soon after, Elsie would follow her sister’s footsteps and attend the same university.
“I’m the only one with a master’s and the only one with a PhD, but if my sister didn’t open the door, I don’t know where I’d be,” Smalls said.
Through experience, growth and learning, Smalls has begun to understand some of her past and the reasons why racism still exists in 2016. As a child she didn’t even know that she attended a segregated school. Now she understands and realizes that racism was the root. Living and working in Charleston has provided experiences that Smalls is unable to ignore. It has provided her with answers to so many of her questions and has sparked many more questions.
“My life as a child was very much in a cocoon,” Smalls said. “There was a much bigger world that I needed to explore because I had a responsibility.”
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a man by the name of Dylann Roof strolled into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. For approximately one hour, Roof sat in on a Bible study group. Then, he pulled out a gun and opened fire, taking the lives of nine innocent people of color.
Smalls was away in Tennessee when the shooting occurred. At first a sense of disbelief struck her. There was no way in her mind that this could’ve happened—that in 2015 a white man would kill nine people having a Bible study.
“This was an attack against our faith, against our belief and goodness, against all we are to each other,” Smalls said. “As it began to evolve and I began to understand the magnitude of it and the kind of evil that was there, all I could say was that we do not lose our faith and that we are conscious of what’s going on around us.”
In her lecture, Smalls hoped to ingrain the idea of speaking out. Do not allow others to say derogatory things or portray acts of racism. Smalls expressed that if you do not make people aware of their atrocities, nothing will change.
“We have a responsibility to not ignore it. We need to continuously talk about it.”