A lasting impact

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Beaufort County civil rights and social justice activist Frieda Mitchell honored at Mather School 

 By Mindy Lucas

Tenacious. Driven. Kind-hearted. Loving.

Those were just a fews of the words used to describe Frieda Mitchell at a small, intimate gathering held in her honor at the Mather School Museum recently. 

The longtime civil rights and social justice activist from Sheldon died in October at the age of 95, but her work and contributions have had a lasting impact on the lives of so many and continue to do so, said those who were on hand for the event held at Mitchell’s alma mater on Friday, May 14. 

“She touched so many lives in this community, in this world and internationally,” said Rufus Pinckney, who recounted growing up near the Mitchells in Sheldon. 

Mitchell didn’t take no for an answer, said Pinckney and many others on hand for the gathering, especially when it came to something that would ultimately benefit that person. 

Case in point: When Mitchell discovered Pinckney had graduated from high school but wasn’t planning to go to college for a year, she called to tell him he would be going to school and he would be going to Mather.

“She said …I’ve got a scholarship for you to go to Mather School, and you will be going to school,” he said laughing.

Humble beginnings

Born in 1925, in Sheldon, Frieda R. Mitchell was one of four children and the daughter of farmers.

Since there was no school bus transportation for Black children, Mitchell and her siblings could not attend the segregated high school in Beaufort. The only option was to go to Mather.

Originally created in 1868 to educate the daughters of freed slaves, the Mather School was one of the oldest boarding schools in the country for African American women.

The school would become co-ed in the mid 1950s and eventually become part of the South Carolina Technical College System.

At Mather, Mitchell excelled in business education earning a perfect 4.0.

She also earned a four-year scholarship to Spelman College, in Atlanta, but her parents wanted her to attend Allen University, an African Methodist Episcopal school supported by her church.

At her parents wishes, Mitchell attended Allen but had to withdraw before graduating after money became short. But that wouldn’t stop Mitchell who went on to teach and eventually accepted a position with a Beaufort County school.

Helping others

Once she had earned an education and secured a career, Mitchell turned her attention to helping others, becoming a champion for children and the working poor in the Lowcountry.

When she wasn’t driving young people to Mather to enroll, she was making sure they got to the polls to vote, many said at Friday’s gathering.

In fact, back in Sheldon, Mitchell organized a massive voter registration campaign which led to the election of the first African American to Beaufort County Council and the unseating of a local magistrate who had held the position for 50 years.

In 1965, Mitchell founded the Beaufort County Education Community (BCEC), an organization that became the central force for school desegregation.

The committee’s efforts led to a landmark election in 1968 in which Mitchell and another member were the first Black council members elected to a school board in South Carolina. She stayed on the school board for 16 years.

Mitchell also worked for the Penn Center in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, and met Martin Luther King Jr. during one of his visits to the center.

She became the co-director of a community development project for Penn Community Services Center and worked to address daycare needs for poor working families, according to Mitchell’s biography on the South Carolina African American History Calendar website.

But Mitchell’s work in the realm of child care reform didn’t end with Beaufort County or South Carolina.

She also organized a coalition that included the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Black Child Development Institute and a number of other state agencies that came together to create United Communities for Child Development (UCCD). UCCD is a private, non-profit federation established to assist and promote community-controlled child care centers in South Carolina. Mitchell left the Penn Center to become UCCD’s first executive director.

Karen Ulmer (left) and Muriel A. Hawkins stand in front of a new exhibit honoring the life and contributions of their mother, longtime civil rights and social justice activist, Frieda Mitchell. The photos and proclamations are now on display at the Mather School Museum on the Technical College of the Lowcountry. Photo by Mindy Lucas

Within two years, the UCCD model was replicated in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi, according to her biography. The program received national attention and Mitchell became a central figure in major daycare policy discussions.

In 1992, her work would take her out of the country when she was recruited by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to conduct an international tour of five southern states in the U.S. and three townships in South Africa – Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. The tour led to the establishment of child care programs in other African countries.

Among the recognition Mitchell received for her work was the Marian Wright Edelman Award for Service to Children and the prestigious John D. Rockefeller, III, Public Service Award.

‘Plenty of work’ to do

Several community leaders in attendance at Friday’s event said they owed their accomplishments to Mitchell or were influenced by the example she set.

Beaufort County Councilman York Glover, who read one of three proclamations given at the event in Mitchell’s honor, said she had a “profound impact” on him.

Glover served alongside Mitchell on the school board for two years and was impressed by the respect she commanded.

“When she spoke, people listened,” he said.

Recently elected Beaufort City Councilman Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, echoed Glover’s comments.

Mitchell recounted how, in 1974, he ran into his former Sunday School teacher in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Now a retired military officer and commercial airline pilot, Mitchell was then on his way to an assignment in California.

Though she was proud of his accomplishments, Frieda Mitchell reminded him there was still “plenty of work” left to do there in Beaufort County.

“Forty-one years later I came back by choice,” Mitchell said. “I left because I was pursuing my dream, and I came back by choice. … I contribute a lot of that to Frieda Mitchell.”

For others, Mitchell was an ever-present force with a watchful eye on children.

“She had children and people at heart and she fought for us,” said Geraldine Dawson.

Dawson recounted how, in the summer of 1965, when South Carolina’s public schools began to integrate, Mitchell was on the front lines working to make sure Beaufort County children were included in the process.

Mitchell even drove behind the buses that fall making sure everything went smoothly – something Dawson and her brother, now Beaufort County Councilman Gerald Dawson, were glad of.

When the bus failed to stop for her and her brother, Mitchell stopped, picked them up and took them on to school, she said.

“That’s the kind of person Frieda was, and I just loved her for it,” Dawson said.

For some though, Mitchell’s presence was greatest felt at a time when they didn’t know what they were capable of yet.

“She saw something in some of us that we didn’t see in ourselves,” Rufus Pinckney said, telling the crowd gathered that he was glad she pushed him.

“Her presence was everywhere in those days and even now, she is still influencing people,” he said.

A PERMANENT TRIBUTE

The Frieda R. Mitchell Early Childhood Development Student Award has been established in Mitchell’s honor at the Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL).

The Mitchell Award will recognize students enrolled in the college’s Early Childhood, Elementary and Special Education Program who are engaged in community service and demonstrate a commitment to early childhood education.

Those interesting in giving to this permanent, endowed fund, can send checks payable to the TCL Foundation, P.O. Box 2614, Beaufort, S,C. 29901. Make sure to note Frieda R. Mitchell Award on the memo line of the check. Or, to learn more or contribute online visit https://www.tcl.edu/foundation/.

Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at mindy.islandnews@gmail.com.