Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 16 | 'Worry about the people'

A documentary filmmaker asks about promises.

May 17, 2007 

Minnie Calhoun returned to Lone Star in 1972, leaving behind a New Jersey teaching career. Her father helped build the railroad line in the 19th century; she lives where the train once stopped and remembers when Lone Star Road was ‘full of people’ who delivered cotton, picked up mail, and paid a dime to ride to Sumter.

PHOTO BY GERRY MELENDEZ

That catchy and oh-so-political phrase "bridge to nowhere" stuck with Susan Mackey Hogue and just wouldn't go away. Something else stayed with her, too: the way news stories approached the subject, with no residents interviewed, only people prescribing from afar.

In 2000, Hogue moved back to Columbia from Eau Claire, Wis. She teaches photography, book art and digital media for Media Arts at USC. In 2003, still haunted, she began her first documentary film, her students responsible for video, sound and producing.

In Lone Star, the crew met Minnie Calhoun, "Miss Missy" in the documentary and, along with the swamp itself, its star. Calhoun — and her three-eggs-a-day chickens, her cats and her sewing machine — lives next door to the Last Stop Convenience Store, across the railroad tracks from what once was Lone Star's downtown.

"When I was a child, the train used to run though here," says Calhoun, 82, elegant in a camel-and-red batik turban and tunic. "On Saturday evening, people would come in. All the stores were working. There was a big platform to sell cotton, a sawmill a ways down."

Calhoun left Lone Star for college and work. For 11 years, she taught home economics in New Jersey's public schools. In 1972, after returning home to care for her dying father, she acceded to her mother's wish and came back to stay.

She built a tiny house, a collapsing wire fence protecting her chickens, a defunct freezer holding the chicken feed, and she began sewing for people, churches and businesses.

"I've seen busy, and I've seen quiet, and now I see dead," she says.

She talks of a bridge with yearning. But her whole life, there's been talk of a bridge. "If we had a bridge, Lone Star wouldn't have gone down like it did. People left; people had to go to work where the work was.

"If a bridge and road came through, it would change Lone Star around completely because there would be more people, more stores opening up. Somebody would open a clothes store, maybe factories. It would be altogether different."

The idea that preserving the swamp could be more important than that causes Calhoun pain. She says, "Don't worry about that; worry about the people."

Hogue's documentary, "Promises Made," found its name on the second interview, which was Calhoun's. "I didn't want to compile a bunch of facts," says Hogue. "I really wanted to represent a piece of history.

"So many residents believe they were promised something they never got. I always thought the promise was the most important thing."

She quotes LeRoy Hampton in the documentary: Promises made and promises lost.

Hampton seems the unofficial ambassador for the Orangeburg/Calhoun side of Lake Marion and unofficial spokesman for change.

"I was born in a little house on Shirer land," he says, referring to the Lone Star farming family that includes J.D. Shirer. "You worked for a guy, and he had a house for you."

Hampton's uncle and the relatives who raised him worked on the Shirer farm. Hampton's maternal grandmother worked for 40 years for the Zeaglers, another farming family, caring for children and cooking.

"The rest of us mostly picked cotton. We pulled weeds up in the summer. We were the Roundup," he jokes, then adds seriously, "We were the economic backbone of Lone Star. But when black folks became more mobile, we started going other places."

Hampton, 51 now, was first in his family to attend college. He credits Upward Bound, a federal program for low-income students whose families lack college experience. "That program saved me, and they taught me about responsibility to your community."

After making it through Orangeburg's Claflin University with assistance from welfare, Hampton was hired in 1977 by his caseworker with the S.C. Department of Social Services. He works in Bamberg.

A cheery, mild-mannered man, Hampton nurses a limp — earned by building a Habitat for Humanity home — and a muted anger at the way things still work.

"All these white folks had blacks who worked in their homes and helped them raise their children," he says.

"People like us helped them get what they got. My uncle walked miles all day and into the night working the fields, and they benefited from our labor and low wages.

"We were economically trapped. We had to go away to get jobs, but we'd like to stay here and live well.

"Do you want economic growth or not? If you say you're for the bridge, that's what you're saying. If you say you're against the bridge, you're saying, 'I don't need economic growth because I got mine.'"

Hampton is clear about what should be next: retirement communities, hotels and restaurants, like in nearby Santee.

"The environmentalists misunderstand us completely. Nobody wants to mess up the environment. We want the same things they want, just a better quality of life.

"I think birds are important, too, but people are more important. God put man to be the smartest beast and take care of everything else."

In 2005, Hogue and her students began showing early edits of the video documentary. "Promises Made" has since been invited to film festivals in nine different states; it has been shown on Southern Lens on ETV and at Nickelodeon's International African-American Film Festival.

She is struck by the regional difference in audience response, which she explains through Calhoun: "Miss Missy is college educated. She came back from New Jersey and took care of her family. That's no small feat.

"She keeps hanging on to the promise things will get better. She thinks a bridge will bring more people, more business.

"In South Carolina, people say, 'That's too much money for the bridge,' and they don't talk about Miss Missy."

Elsewhere, "Audiences are more willing to look for and suggest compromises, such as ecotourism. They want to protect the environment but are very much aware of people who have a lot of needs in small rural towns without jobs."

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