Voices: Two men share same vision for community in North Columbia

cclick@thestate.comJuly 3, 2008 

They have been a dynamic duo for more than 40 years, working the edges of city government in hopes that North Columbia’s blossoming time eventually would come.

Henry Hopkins and Alvin Hinkle have waited — through segregation and integration, through the revitalization of Shandon, Olympia, Read Street and the Congaree Vista — for North Columbia’s moment.

Now, they hope their work finally is paying off.

Both have been leaders of the Eau Claire Community Council, fighting for incremental improvements to neighborhoods that were left behind in Columbia’s rush toward the suburbs.

“The reason I think it has been held back is because the city turned its back on us for other projects,” said Hopkins, an unstoppable man with a trademark fedora. “We had North Main Street projects long before Five Points, long before Olympia, long before Read Street and, especially, long before the Vista.”

The politics of race and economics played a role in North Columbia’s wait.

The 1970 desegregation of public schools prompted white flight out of Eau Claire, which filled with a rising black middle class, drawn to the affordable houses and the proximity to downtown.

But there were sore spots, including the gash that S.C. 277 made into the heart of the area, and pockets of seemingly intractable poverty.

Now, Hopkins, a retired postal worker and longtime executive director of the Eau Claire Community Council, is buoyed by the influx of new residents to the neighborhood, including young families, gay people, artists and suburban expatriates.

That most of the newcomers are white does not bother Hopkins, who has spent a lifetime shoring up his neighborhood so that lower- and middle-class blacks could have a moment in the sun.

But he worries that the newcomers might not be permanent residents. As they have families and their children become school-age, “they’re gone,” he said, unwilling to risk educating their children in schools that have been designated by the state as failing.

“If our education doesn’t come up, then we are going to see this kind of influx to get started,” he said. “But then, when its time for Mary and John to go to school, there are going to be other avenues: they’re moving out.”

‘DIVERSITY WAS SOMETHING WE STRIVED FOR’

Alvin Hinkle, fresh from a military stint at Shaw Air Force Base and USC graduate school in public administration, moved with his wife to Northwood Hills in 1973, just as many white residents were packing up and moving away.

“If you could see a map of Columbia back then, Northwood Hills was the only area in this whole area (that was integrated). That was back during the days when a lot of predominantly black areas were being kept out of the city,” he said, for fear that white voting strength would be diluted.

Planning conversations in the city and in the governor’s office, where he worked for a time, turned on fears that Columbia could become another Atlanta, where blacks wielded significant political power, Hinkle said.

“Everybody was going crazy,” he said.

Although one of Hinkle’s white neighbors moved out immediately after he bought his house, Hinkle thinks others would have stayed except for the racial politics that were being played out beyond the community.

“A lot of people were complaining that real estate agents were trying to get them to sell their houses, threatening that blacks were going to come in and they could get a good price for their houses,” he said.

For those who stayed behind, “diversity was something we strived for, something we cherished,” he said. He remembered community Christmas parties and picnics that were attended by whites and blacks.

Hinkle later went to USC law school and began work for Palmetto Legal Services, where he worked on a number of cases against the city for what he calls “black and poor folk removal” in urban renewal projects.

While in law school, Hinkle was one of the six plaintiffs on Washington v. Findlay, the lawsuit that challenged the city’s at-large system of voting that left places like North Columbia without representation.

Although the suit was dismissed, the city, led by the late mayor Kirk Finlay, created a bi-racial committee that eventually led to single-member districts. Two black city councilmen, Sam Davis and E.W. Cromartie, now represent parts of North Columbia.

Hinkle thinks those elected officials should deal with neighborhood problems head-on rather than patronize citizens with cosmetic fixes.

“I don’t think you have to go hat-in-hat, shuckin’ and jiving,” he said. “You have to say ‘Here’s what the needs are.’ You don’t accept handouts and other things.

“There has been such a neglect of this area by the city of Columbia (over the years),” he said. “What they have been doing is throwing crumbs at the area.”

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