By Marty Dobrow

Heart—not tragedy—defines a community

Elsie Smalls barely knew me when she invited me into a house of worship in North Charleston, S.C.

Dr. Smalls grew up in Kingstree, S.C. One of eight children, she worked long hours in the tobacco and cotton fields for her sharecropping parents, both of whom had a grade school education but dreams their children would rise. She lived that dream, getting a PhD in public administration and becoming campus director of the Springfield College School of Continuing and Professional Studies in Charleston.

Invited to speak at this year’s graduation, I arrived in a city I knew to have a complicated racial history. It was heavily involved with the slave trade. The first shots in the Civil War were fired here at Fort Sumter.

The graduation was set for Jan. 16, the day after what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday. The film “Selma” was playing all over the city.

The ceremony at the Family Life Center at the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church was, quite frankly, the best commencement I have ever witnessed. The gospel music went directly from the ear to the heart. The graduates, almost exclusively African-American adults and first-generation students like Dr. Smalls, were a vibrant bunch aspiring to careers in human services. They were living our Humanics mission in a pure and inspiring way.

The warm embrace I felt from the close-knit African-American community didn’t stop at graduation. The next day we did a Humanics in Action Day cleanup of a middle school in North Charleston and shared a delicious lunch at a soul food restaurant: cheesy grits and shrimp, cornbread, okra, sweet tea.

Dr. Smalls set me up with an interview in her office with 86-year-old Christine Osburn Jackson. A longtime civic leader in Charleston, Jackson grew up in Marion, Ala., along with her first cousin Coretta Scott—who, years later, would marry Martin Luther King. Jackson gave me a glimpse of their childhood: walking six miles to school, sometimes dodging trash thrown by white students out of the windows of their shiny yellow school bus. “Isn’t it amazing that we have lived in those times?” she asked. “This shouldn’t come out of my mouth, but I’m going to say it: We have every reason to be just so mad. But all I’m going to say again is, ‘Hmm—look at me now!’”

Then, pointing to Dr. Smalls and her nice corner office, “And look at you now. Look at this office! Hmm. Look at us now!”

I laughed and headed home with a full heart.

Which became such a heavy heart in the months that followed as Charleston became a site of searing racial anguish: first, the fatal shooting of the unarmed and retreating Walter Scott by a police officer caught on film, and then, in June, the horrific killing of nine African-Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

It hit our campus director very hard. One of the victims was DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a close family friend whose father had once been Elsie Smalls’ pastor. DePayne had sung beautifully at SHS-Charleston graduations in the past. You don’t move on easily from such horror, something Smalls described as “evil even beyond our wildest imagination.”

But Smalls said she has been buoyed by the spirit she saw in the aftermath: President Obama’s poignant eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the removal of the Confederate flag at the initiative of South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley, and mostly by the amazing grace of the friends and families of the victims.

“I am so proud of how we are and who we are in a moment of tragedy,” she said. “In our darkest hour, we band together. We make some things happen. And we take care of each other.”