The City Magazine Since 1975

The Way We Were

August 2015
The Way We Were
Travel back to the Summer of 1975 as six local writers reflect on what life was like from Charleston to East Cooper to James and Kiawah islands in the mid-1970s


The Charleston Peninsula

Written by Harlan Greene

When summer of 1975 set in, there was no telling what autumn would bring. Many of my friends had, like me, just finished college; some had moved; others had full-time jobs. Those left behind gathered each evening in a variety of downtown apartments that were large and dim, with painted floors that slanted, Indian print spreads on the beds, and stains like Rorschach tests on the ceilings. Lacking air conditioning, we sat on porches, fanned ourselves, and flicked ashes from our cigarettes into plants.

I was living atop the Dock Street Theatre without a car, but that was okay. The city met my needs, such as they were. The market we called the “Little Pig” on Broad Street kept me in food; Silver’s and Woolworth’s on King had every gadget or amenity or shoelace I could require. There was a coin laundromat on Tradd, and gas stations offered tobacco (two cigarettes for a nickel) and beer.

We weren’t well-heeled enough for The Scarlett O’Hara at the foot of Charlotte Street but much too hip for the Embassy Supper Club on Cumberland; at Henry’s, we could observe William Faulkner’s stepson, Malcolm Franklin, in his safari suit taking his habitual place at the bar. We drank in college bars and ended up at The Coffee Cup, at Meeting and Wentworth, at three in the morning, sitting between tugboat captains and drag queens, all of us obeying the sign that read, “Be Nice, Be Quiet, or Be Gone.” That was a good enough summer philosophy for me.

I spent much of my free time walking the city. Many neighborhoods were shabby, with unpainted houses like unwashed faces. It was almost as if I were courting Charleston, trying to get the city to notice me in my peregrinations. Where would I fit in? Could I get a toehold? A job?

As I drifted, I kept running into friends who claimed they had seen me and said, “Hello,” but rudely, I had not answered. I insisted that I had been nowhere near that place, but people swore it, and so I was intrigued. Maybe I was a sleepwalker, or someone was impersonating me, or maybe I was somebody else entirely.

My friends and I were obsessed by identities and destinies that summer and a tad spooked by the folk we saw on King Street—such as the well-dressed “pencil man” dragging along in leg braces to Woolworth’s each day; or the sad and suffering owner of the New Shoe Factory, who always stared dejectedly at people passing. Would we end up like them? Or was something grand awaiting us? Should we dress up to meet our fates like those proper old ladies who put on gloves and hats to go up King Street?

The days passed by rote; we had an unvarying routine of work (those of us who had jobs), meeting in the evenings, passing time till it was not too early to be seen in bars. We longed for change and spoke of it even as the newspaper prophesized new things coming. Maybe someone would build a bridge to James Island; and maybe folks would drive all the way to those islands, Seabrook and Kiawah, they were talking about developing. Meanwhile, we were marooned on the peninsula where Mandingo played endlessly at the Riviera Theatre. It seemed Ashley Avenue would always go north; Rutledge, due south; Beaufain and Wentworth would be one-way eternally.

One day, a woman stopped me and said, “You look just like my son,” pointing to a nerdy guy coming our way. I met my doppelganger and spoke with the young man who lived with his mother near the projects on Queen Street. It was not my future, or even myself I met that summer; just someone others mistook for me. By August, I decided to leave.

And when I came back from California a year later, Charleston seemed different; a 30-something man with horn-rimmed glasses was now in charge of finding Charleston’s true self. His name was Joseph P. Riley Jr., and he was the city’s new mayor. So the city, at least, was finding a solid new identity.

✽ Harlan Greene returned to Charleston in 1976 to work as an archivist and historian. He’s now head of Special Collections at Addlestone Library.


Downtown And Around

Written by Jennet Robinson Alterman

In the summer of ’75, I was living on Queen Street for the second time in my life, renting a third-floor walk-up just a block away from the house where my parents lived when I was born. Queen Street was not posh at either time. The neighborhood was historic but a bit shabby—certainly not part of a “French Quarter.” I paid $90 a month in rent and had a few dollars left for food and necessities. Yet I loved the street, its residents, and my new independence. Without a car, I walked, biked, or bused around town with little congestion or tourist issues.

That year stands out in my mind because I was doing a lot of acting with the Footlight Players, who performed in the Dock Street Theatre. In 1975, it became one of the first city-owned buildings to be air-conditioned. The Taming of the Shrew re-opened the theater after the work was done, and I was thrilled to be a part of it. Air conditioning changed Charleston forever, making tourism a year-round economy.

A few years earlier, I had landed my first job when I found out that WCSC Channel 5, then the largest of three local stations, needed a temporary receptionist. I jumped at the opportunity and went on to temp in five different departments until finally being hired on full-time in the news department. At Channel 5, I counted Bill Sharpe and Warren Peper among my colleagues. We were all fresh out of college when we started, and thankfully, Loretta Mouzon took us under her wing and showed us how to cover and report the news. A true professional and the first African-American woman to report on air in Charleston, she was a real trailblazer, as the city still hadn’t been fully integrated. Her talents were obvious to us rookies.

The country hardly knew about Charleston back then, and Charlestonians didn’t much care what was happening in the rest of the U.S. Within a couple of years, I was a full-time reporter and anchored the 11 p.m. broadcast, covering a wide variety of news. A couple of major stories from this time still resonate 40 years later.

On the political scene, I had a chance to watch history in the making when the station assigned me to cover Dr. James B. Edwards in his 1974 bid to become governor. It may be hard for today’s Charlestonians to realize that back then, South Carolina was solidly Democratic. People assumed that the next governor would be Democrat Charles “Pug” Ravenel, but as often occurs in politics, the unexpected happened. James B. Edwards, a Charleston dentist, won the Republican primary over retired General William Westmoreland, and the gubernatorial race that followed changed South Carolina history and introduced me to one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.

I observed Dr. Edwards exhibit grace and leadership every day during the campaign; he won the general election after Ravenel was declared ineligible to run. On election night, Dr. Edwards came to Channel 5 and insisted that I be the first to interview him as Governor-elect, the first Republican governor since 1876. I will never forget his generosity to me in his rise to national prominence.

And then there was the grim ongoing story of “The Folly Beach Strangler.” Three girls had been abducted from the beach and murdered. The discovery of the bodies shook the quiet island community to its core. Previously, no one had worried about abductions on our local beaches. It was unthinkable. Folly resident Richard Valenti was charged and given two life sentences. Since then, he has been denied parole 18 times.

Although working at Channel 5 broadened my perspectives of world issues and taught me invaluable life lessons, I knew I wouldn’t be in my little apartment on Queen Street for long. I yearned to explore the globe and gain experience beyond my sleepy hometown. I moved away at the end of that summer to chase different dreams, leaving behind a rundown, slightly seedy town with too many vacant lots and a reluctance to fully accept integration. As I ventured forth in a career that took me to more than 40 countries, my hometown was growing and learning as well. Under the vision and leadership of Joe Riley, who took office in December 1975, the city was ripening, beginning to become the jewel that it is today.

Charleston is the place where I was born, and it is the place where I have chosen to settle after four decades of travel. And now I find myself living back on Queen Street in a cherished neighborhood, enveloped in remembrance of times from my past and in a place where I look forward to the future.

✽ Jennet Robinson Alterman is a consultant who assists nonprofits in becoming fiscally sustainable.


Kiawah Island

Written by Edward O. Marshall

On most weekends in the early 1970s, my family followed a set ritual when journeying from downtown Charleston to Kiawah: Cram blue jeans, boots, and swimsuits into duffle bags and wedge those into the back of my dad’s Oldsmobile station wagon along with our Honda mini-bike; visit the Piggly Wiggly to stock up on provisions; then hop into the car ready for an adventure. Back then, Kiawah was not yet developed, and wild horses and pigs still roamed free. Needless to say, my siblings and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Dad would drive us out to the end of Bohicket Road where the pavement changed to dirt and the road divided, with Seabrook to the right, a big tomato field straight ahead, and our destination to the left. Cruising down the sandy road, big dust clouds roiled up behind us as we approached the unmanned gate—a single metal pipe barring the way. Our expedition halted, we’d jump out of the car and take our seats on the pipe. When Dad turned his brass key to open the padlock, the rusty chains would drop away, and we’d ride the gate as it swung to open the way onto the island. We’d hop back in the car, more dust clouds dogging us until we rolled over the single-lane, black, creosote-coated timber bridge that spanned the Kiawah River. We loved to see the marsh and pluff mud on either side, because that meant we were almost there.

Following the long road to the ocean, we’d eventually reach Kiawah’s tiny village. Built mostly in the 1950s and ’60s, the comfortable bungalows and beach houses lined the dirt road alongside the water. We’d pass the McDowells’, the Bates’, and the Stallworths’ houses, and others whose owners’ names I’m sorry I don’t recall. A little further on was the Royals’, a big, beautiful home with a real concrete driveway. The Royals owned Kiawah and had invited just a handful of other folks to build on the island. Happily, our family was included, and our home was third-to-last running north on the front beach, followed by the Smiths’ and the Sosnowskis’.

My mother, Nancy, and my father, Neil, had built the house—a wonderful place with an exterior crafted of dark redwood that sat up high on black pilings—in the early ’60s. They designed it so that you could see miles out to sea from any room. And because they included two huge glass doors that slid wide open to allow the ocean breeze to flow in and then out through windows facing the road, most of the time, it was cool enough that we didn’t need air conditioning.

Parked under the house was a red Willys Jeep, the means for outings all over the island. One of the best involved Dad driving it over the access roads through the sand dunes to visit the old, abandoned Vanderhorst House. Its walls still stood, but most of the windows were gone, so we were able to creep inside to explore the rooms and walk up the stairs to the top floor, from which we could see all the way to Folly Beach. We heard ghost stories about how a troop of Boy Scouts had stayed in the house and one of the kids was shot through that very window.

By the 1970s, our family had changed with the times and had come to resemble The Brady Bunch. My father and stepmother, Lynn, brought five kids in all to their marriage, and together we roamed the island like a posse on the mini-bike and two other motorcycles. We’d visit the northern end of the island and find places where the pigs lived in the marsh grass behind the dunes (we called it “Pig City”) and a huge dune that we dubbed “Pork Chop Hill.”

In 1974, Kiawah was sold to the Kuwaitis, and by the summer of ’75, development was imminent. The island we had known and loved began to fade. While it was hard to witness the changes, Kiawah had provided something eternal—a wonderfully wild and natural place to be a kid, where the memories of our adventures live on.

✽ Edward O. Marshall grew up on Kiawah in the 1960s and ’70s with his family. A former reporter for the News and Courier and Evening Post newspapers, he is a psychologist and serves veterans at the V.A. Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife, Susan, and son, David.


Mount Pleasant

Written by Ann Thrash

When you’re 13 and can walk, bike, or take a quick boat ride to go everywhere, do everything, and see everybody who’s important to you, life is perfect. That’s what Mount Pleasant was for me in 1975. It wasn’t Mayberry—it was better.

The sprawling city that Mount Pleasant is today, with its 75,000 or so residents, wasn’t imaginable back then, when the town really was a town, with about 10,000 of us calling it home. Life revolved around Coleman Boulevard and “the Village,” where our shopping hub was Pitt Street. There was (and still is) the Pitt Street Pharmacy, which everybody just called “the drugstore.” Coleman’s Hardware was across the street, and next door was Kenny’s, a clothing store. Nearby, at what’s now the Old Village Post House restaurant and inn, was a little grocery store that later became a crafts store, where my sisters and I bought supplies for our macramé and decoupage projects. Mom got her permanents at Nan’s Beauty Parlor.

We lived just off Pitt on King Street in the block between the harbor and the present-day Darby Building. One grandmother and my aunt lived next door, and my other grandmother was just a couple of blocks away. We walked to church and Vacation Bible School at St. Andrew’s.

The neighborhood was as tightly woven as a sweetgrass basket. We played foosball in the basement of one neighbor’s house and basketball in the driveway of another. Late on Christmas mornings, all the kids went door to door to see what Santa had brought everybody. My good friend Beth lived down by Alhambra Hall, and we’d ride our bikes to the drugstore on Saturdays for hot dogs at the soda fountain.

In the summer, we spent almost all day, every day, on my grandmother’s dock. We swam like fish, slathered on gallons of baby oil to work on our tans, and caught crabs by the thousands in little drop nets baited with chicken necks. We’d turn down the volume on the pop and rock music from WTMA when the grown-ups joined us. From that dock, we watched the Yorktown being towed into the harbor that summer of ’75, heading to its final berth at Patriots Point with a flotilla of local motorboats and sailboats bobbing alongside it. A generation later, when the Hunley was recovered and returned to port in August 2000, I thought back on the day the “Fighting Lady” arrived and how we waved from the dock and sounded an air horn in salute. As the daughter of a Navy veteran, I felt so proud of the respect my town, and the Lowcountry as a whole, has always had for those who serve at sea.

When the weather and tides were right and dusk was falling, Dad would load up the old rowboat, which he called “the bateau,” and he and I would set out for Crab Bank by kerosene lantern light to go graining, or gigging, for flounder. Mom would bake our catch the next night with a crusting of chopped peanuts—a dish she devised after tasting something similar when she and Dad visited Arnaud’s in New Orleans on their honeymoon.

Dad wasn’t much on eating out (“When I find a restaurant where they cook as well as your mother does, I’ll be happy to go,” he often said), but when we could talk him into it, there was The Trawler or the Lorelei on Shem Creek. The Trawler drew lots of out-of-town visitors, while the Lorelei (located where the new Shem Creek Park is) had the reputation of being more “local.” I’d get jealous of my sisters, who were a few years older, when their dates would take them to the Blue Hawaii, a Coleman Boulevard Polynesian restaurant that was the stuff of legend thanks to menu items that we thought were incredibly sophisticated and exotic, such as the pupu platter (an appetizer tray) and a cocktail called the “Flaming Volcano” that would make your head spin (at least that’s what they told us kids).

When the nights turned chilly in the fall, we still gravitated toward the dock. We used larger drop nets rigged with pieces of mullet to catch shrimp—long, fat, red-legged whoppers—by the light of the same kerosene lanterns that lit our way to Crab Bank. That kerosene smell still takes me back to that time. It was all food for a Lowcountry child’s soul.

From my long-ago perspective, Mount Pleasant was self-sufficient. If my parents needed to buy something serious, such as a car or a refrigerator, they had to go to Charleston. But in 1975, everything a child could want or need was “on this side of the bridge,” as we used to say. Mount Pleasant is still “this side” for me—still where I live and still where I can find everything I want and need. Well, except for a Flaming Volcano. Now that I’m legal (and then some), I’d sure like to have one of those.

✽ A former food editor and later features editor of The Post and Courier, Ann Thrash is a freelance writer, editor, and cookbook author. She still lives in her hometown of Mount Pleasant with her husband, Bill, and the world’s calmest Jack Russell terrier, Indigo.


Charleston

Written by Anice Geddis-Carr

In the summer of 1975, I was living in Washington, D.C., and homesick for Charleston. It had been several months since I last saw my mother, sister, and brother, and I couldn’t wait for August and a visit home to celebrate my birthday and stay in our house on Fishburne Street, which was filled with warmth, comfort, and much laughter.

I had graduated from Howard University the year before and begun my professional career at Saks Fifth Avenue as a buyer trainee in the exclusive Designer Salon. I loved fashion, and it seemed the perfect fit. But when I received a job offer with The National Bank of Washington that paid well, offered benefits, and allowed me to take care of myself, I couldn’t refuse and became the first African American hired for their commercial loan-training program. This made my mother extremely proud, and I looked forward to sharing the good news with everyone at home.

My mother, Mrs. Wilhelmenia Geddis, was a trailblazer herself. She founded Dreamland Nursery & Mickey’s Preschool, the first African-American-owned, licensed day care in the Charleston area in the 1960s. A hard-working, strong woman, she accomplished many of her dreams and shared them through the opportunities she provided for her four children. Recognizing that I was both ambitious and curious, she did whatever it took to make sure I had all I needed, and most of what I wanted.

I arrived in Charleston in August for my two-week vacation, looking forward to going on excursions around town and seeing the familiar faces and places I’d been missing. Of course, Mother and I would go shopping, one of our favorite pastimes, at wonderful shops, such as Bob Ellis and Anne’s. And we’d have to go to the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly with the Harold’s Cabin delicatessen inside. One of Mother’s closest friends, Mrs. Martha Price, worked as a server there, and they had the best deli meats and cheeses. I have been to some fine grocery stores, but Harold’s Cabin couldn’t be matched.

However happy I was to shop on King Street and go to my favorite deli, I became keenly aware that there were no African Americans in management positions in these places. It was hard to reconcile that I would not have had the opportunities afforded me in D.C. if I had remained in my beloved hometown.

I also remember a Moncks Corner news story from that time about a black man named Tom Key who had been pulled over and then shot and killed by a white highway patrolman. Many blacks in the area began to boycott the white-owned stores, but were threatened with the loss of their jobs if their protesting did not end. Today, I can’t help but notice how similar that 1975 murder is to the unjustified killing of Walter Scott by a white police officer last April.

Although my mother was one of the best cooks in town, she believed in exposing us to the finer things in life, so we would often get dressed up in our Sunday best and go out to dine. In the ’70s, it still was not common for African Americans to eat at downtown restaurants, but two of my favorites—the Ladson House on President Street and Brooks Motel and Restaurant on Morris—were popular among blacks.

I loved the food at Ladson House and how the tables were set with white tablecloths, china, silver, and nice centerpieces. I remember Mr. Ladson, a tall and stately man who was so gracious to everyone. For its part, the Brooks Motel and Restaurant served great soul food and was known to be a place where you might see someone famous—a black entertainer, celebrity, or politician (this was where Dr. Martin Luther King stayed during his visit to Charleston). The people there treated us like family, but then again, it was partially owned by my mother’s cousins, Albert Brooks and his brother, Bennie.

It was there that Mother surprised me with a birthday party that summer. She pretended that we were merely going for dinner, but when we walked into the banquet room, there were old classmates from Immaculate Conception School and Bishop England, as well as friends from Burke and Bonds-Wilson and my extended family. What fun we had that night! I had kept in touch with my former schoolmates, and when I came home we would get together to go dancing at places like Club Zanzibar in the North Area and the Faculty Lounge downtown.

I hold these memories of the summer of ’75 dear because of my wonderful family and all of the special attention I received. But this homecoming also left me with a sad reminder that I was very fortunate. I realized that most African Americans in Charleston would never have had the opportunities that I received in D.C. I was (and am) fortunate that my mother prepared me to compete in a world that was very different from the one I came from. For that I will always be grateful.

✽ After pursuing careers (banking) in Washington, D.C., and (entertainment) in Los Angeles, Anice Geddis-Carr returned home to care for her ailing mother. Today, she is working in hospitality as a front-desk concierge at the French Quarter Inn.


James Island

Written by Julian Buxton

Green, wild, and blue. Other kids built forts or tree houses; I had marsh, saltwater, and sky. Just saying “James Island in 1975” immediately pulls me into the creeks and marshes behind my childhood house. My 15-year-old self could escape school overload, yelling coaches, and six noisy younger siblings by jumping in my johnboat and heading out on James Island Creek. Connected with all of those thoughts is my father, Dr. Julian Thomas Buxton Jr., whose presence was substantial while he lived and remains so to thousands of locals even though he has been gone for more than a decade.

My father lived an outsized life. Not a week goes by without someone recognizing my name and then recounting a story about how my father touched or changed his or her life in some astonishing way. Some of that was through his remarkable energy, physical presence, and demeanor. Much of it was due to his daily surgical work, saving lives on what at some level had to become routine, if that is possible.

My parents bought the North Shore Drive house on James Island Creek in 1964, when Harbor View Road was one of the few paved roads that I can remember there being. No one imagined a James Island Connector until sometime in the late 1970s, and its advocates seemed nuts to most of us. No one wanted a big bridge to cut through our beautiful marshes, quiet tides, and mostly placid community, including my father. Attitudes changed once it opened in 1993, perhaps my father’s most of all.

Until the Connector opened, Dad often spent the night at Roper Hospital if he had patients he needed to watch closely, or if there was a trauma situation. At all other times of emergency, he would race over three bridges—the James Island Creek Bridge (now the Dr. Julian Thomas Buxton Jr. Bridge), the Wappoo Creek Bridge, and the Ashley River Bridge—just to get to the hospital. Far more frequently than now, one of those bridges would be drawn, often putting lives in jeopardy. Occasionally, when the bridges did not block his urgent drive into the city, policemen stopped him for speeding. Upon discovering who he was, they would escort him to Roper with sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Around 2 a.m. one summer night in 1975, I awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. I expected the same thing as usual: no noise for minutes, then a fast, heavy rumbling of the big man coming down the stairs; the front door slamming; and his car engine roaring down North Shore Drive toward the hospital.

On this night, no door slammed after the rumble from the stairs. Instead, the back hall shook as he approached my bedroom. Dad opened the door and told me to get up. He said the Wappoo Creek Bridge was stuck open and commanded me to give him a ride. That made no sense to me, but I sprang out of bed and saw him in the backyard walking with force toward the water. I ran to the dock where he threw me the keys to the Boston Whaler. We jumped in and I throttled the engine full bore across the harbor to the Charleston Marina. I steered the bow towards the floating dock nearest Lockwood Drive. When we got close enough, Dad leaped onto the dock and hit the ground running. I watched him dash toward Calhoun Street until I could no longer see him.

Everything was still and quiet at the dock as I fixed my eyes into the dark, then I headed back home across the water. I like imagining that I was an essential part of a last-minute, heroic saving of a life. The fact is that I never really learned what happened. I didn’t get to ask my father until days later. For three consecutive nights, I heard him speed off to the hospital. One night, he came home from work before I went to sleep, and when I asked, he stood still for a long time. I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to recall which night that was or if he was searching for the right thing to say. The most he offered was, “Yes. Thank you very much for what you did. It all worked out.”

That night my father invited me into something miraculous, something that forever shifted my perspective on how much one life can matter, even though it was, other than the boat ride part, an almost everyday piece of his own life. The experience inspired in me a deep desire to make my time on Earth count.

Now, North Shore Drive and its adjoining streets are paved; most have been for more than 40 years. For the past decade, traffic had been so thick and fast during rush hour that my mother and her neighbors successfully petitioned the county to install speed bumps. It’s a far cry from the place where we once rode ponies on a quiet dirt drive and traveled miles from home on our bikes without a care.

And although that boat ride across the harbor is an exalted example, James Island and really all of Charleston contained a wildness and freedom that can’t be fully understood from today’s perspective. 1975 was the year that a doctor colleague of Dad’s, fishing by the jetties at the mouth of the harbor, watched my brother Eddie return from fishing in the ocean. Eddie was nine years old, by himself, in an aluminum johnboat powered only by a six-horse Evinrude. I am not saying that any parent back then condoned such a thing. Yet I am confident that most of us who lived in Charleston in 1975 can produce stories that testify to a time of unfettered exploration and imagination, certainly in comparison to now.

Ellis Island, where Lowe’s and The Peninsula apartments now sit, was an untamed, thick forest with giant live oaks that reached out into the creek. Miles across the green marsh from our houses on North Shore Drive, we 14- and 15-year-old boys spent summer days exploring the whole place. We skinny-dipped with girls, kissed them if they let us, and swung far out into the water on long knotted ropes hung from high branches.

I sound like a nostalgic old man, yet I am only 54, and these memories remain close. James Island has changed significantly since 1975—more development, more people, more traffic. But James Island Creek is still the same. My father and I used to call that creek and its marshes heaven. My mother is still there and I swear, I believe Dad is too.

✽ Julian T. Buxton III, known exclusively as “Tiger” in 1975, shares the stories of Charleston and the Lowcountry through his 19-year-old company, Tour Charleston LLC. The fourth printing of his cult classic, The Ghosts of Charleston, is back on shelves this summer.

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